This is not a sermon, it’s my preliminary exegetical work. Hopefully others might find it helpful.
34 Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
16:1 The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.’
2 But Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.’
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 to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.’
4 Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’
5 Samuel replied, ‘Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.’ Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’
7 But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’
8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ 9 Jesse then made Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ 11 So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’
‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered. ‘He is tending the sheep.’
Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’
12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.
Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’
13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.
In the chapter immediately preceding this one, Saul is commanded by God to wipe out the Amalekites because, hundreds of years before, they had opposed Israel when they arrived in Palestine from Egypt in the time of Moses. The command as it stands is very objectionable to us as Christians: ‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys’ (15:3 NIV). The Hebrew word translated ‘totally destroy’ in the NIV refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to Yahweh, often by – well, totally destroying them! So it is not only an execution, but also a kind of human sacrifice, and both of these things run clean counter to what Jesus has taught us about the nature of God. Since I take Jesus as the key to understanding and interpreting the Old Testament, I will therefore be cautious in how seriously I take the idea that this was a divine command.
However, in the narrative we have to take it as it is and move on to the main point – the disobedience of Saul, God’s anointed king. He did not obey the command; he defeated the Amalekites, but he spared their king and also ‘the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs – everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed’ (15:9).
If I’m ever going to understand this strange passage, I need to understand that in the terms of the Israelite culture of the day, this was the same as keeping your best and strongest lambs and calves for yourself, and only sacrificing to God the ones that were so weak and sickly that they were going to die anyway. Later on Saul will protest that sacrifice was always his eventual intention: ‘The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to Yahweh your God at Gilgal’ (15:21) – the principle shrine of Israel at the time, the place where the tabernacle stood, the forebear of the Temple Solomon would later build in Jerusalem. If this is true, it seems that Saul had decided it was not right just to slaughter everything on the battlefield without proper ceremony; the good stuff should go to God’s shrine, where it could be offered with all the proper rituals and observances.
But it seems clear to me that the prophet Samuel, who had challenged Saul about his obedience to God, did not believe this explanation. His response is one of those Old Testament classics:
“Does Yahweh delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as obeying Yahweh?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
And arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh,
He has rejected you as king” (15:22-23).
So Samuel pronounces judgement on Saul in the name of Yahweh.
‘As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbours – to one better than you”’ (15:27-28).
And so, after Samuel brings out Agag king of the Amalekites and kills him as Saul had refused to do, he leaves Saul and never sees him again.
And this leads us directly to today’s passage.
What does it say?
The last verse of chapter 15 tells us that Samuel went to his home in Ramah, but mourned for Saul until the day he died. And his mourning was joined to Yahweh’s mourning, because Yahweh ‘regretted’ that he had made Saul king over Israel. This is an example of something we see in the Old Testament – God taking a course of action and then changing his mind and regretting it. This seems to contradict not only the Greek idea of a god who never changes, but also some other texts in the scriptures that speak of God never changing. No doubt we’re on the edge of a great mystery here, but we won’t resolve it today!
In chapter sixteen God quickly moves on to the new plan. Saul is still king of Israel and his kingdom is outwardly strong; David will be anointed king by God in this chapter, but he will not take up his throne over the whole nation for another twenty chapters, until 2 Samuel chapter 5, and most of those chapters will be taken up with the struggle between the kingdom of Saul and the new movement led by David, the unwilling rebel, who to the end refuses to actually take up arms against Saul, who he regards as ‘Yahweh’s anointed’.
So in chapter 16 Yahweh tells Samuel to stop mourning for Saul and go to Bethlehem to visit the home of Jesse, because he (Yahweh) has chosen one of Jesse’s sons as king. Samuel is understandably afraid; how can he go to anoint a new king when the old king is still strong on his throne? If Saul hears of it he will kill Samuel immediately. So God suggests a plan; tell Jesse and the other citizens of Bethlehem that you are coming to offer a community sacrifice. Invite Jesse and his family, and then do the anointing as a sort of afterthought.
So this is what Samuel does. He goes to Bethlehem – a town on the edge of Saul’s northern kingdom, and beyond the reach of Samuel’s normal circuit as judge as well – and the elders of the town are more than a little afraid of him; they ‘trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”’ (16:4 NIV). Their fear is understandable; by now it will be known in the land that Saul and Samuel have had a falling out; Saul is the king, but Samuel is the one who made him king. Which one should the people of Bethlehem be friendly to? In a time of civil war, these visits from officials are always fraught with peril! But Samuel assures them that he has come in peace, to offer a sacrifice; everyone, including Jesse and his sons, is to consecrate themselves with the appropriate rituals and come to the sacrifice.
The author describes what happens next in some detail. Jesse and seven of his sons come to the sacrifice. When they arrive, Jesse sees Eliab (the oldest?) and thinks, “Surely Yahweh’s anointed stands here before Yahweh” (16:6); apparently Eliab was a particularly impressive looking man! But then once again comes one of those Old Testament classics:
‘But Yahweh said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. Yahweh does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart”’ (16:7 NIV).
This issue of the loyalty of the heart has been central from the beginning of the Israelite monarchy. Saul was the first king, and we’re told that after Samuel anointed him as king,
‘As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart’ (1 Samuel 10:9).
Not long afterwards, when Samuel is stepping back from the role he has played all his life as the last great judge of Israel, to make room for the king whom God and the people have chosen, he warns them about this issue of the heart:
‘“Do not be afraid”, Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from Yahweh, but serve Yahweh with all your heart…But be sure to fear Yahweh and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will perish”’ (1 Samuel 12:20, 24-25).
Saul’s heart was initially changed, to be sure, but by the time we get to chapter fifteen it’s clear what his heart was actually full of:
‘Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honour and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal’ (15:12).
Saul is surely not the first political leader who starts out with a true heart but eventually is overtaken by self-importance and entitlement!
So what God is looking for among these sons of Jesse is a person who will serve God faithfully with all his heart, and lead God’s people to do the same. One by one Jesse’s sons parade before Samuel – Abinadab, Shammah, and four others, but Yahweh has not chosen any of them. When the parade is done, Samuel turns to Jesse and says, “Yahweh hasn’t chosen any of these. Is there another one?” So Jesse tells him about the youngest, David, who is currently out looking after the family flock of sheep. So they send for David, and the author (who no doubt was a member of the royal court of the descendants of David!), despite his earlier warnings about not looking at the outward appearance, can’t restrain himself from saying, ‘He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features’ (v.12, NIV) – or, as the NRSV says in a surprisingly different translation, ‘Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome’. But now there is no doubt and no hesitation:
‘Then Yahweh said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one”. So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the spirit of Yahweh came powerfully upon David’ (16:13a).
Here we have the second essential: the presence of the spirit of God. This has come on Saul too (10:10), but by his later actions he has rejected the presence of Yahweh’s spirit, and later on in chapter 16 we are told explicitly,
‘Now the Spirit of Yahweh had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh tormented him’ (v.14).
At this stage in the theology of Israel both good and evil spirits come from God; it is not until later that we have a developed theology of the devil as the source of evil. But this is a marginal concern in the text; the important thing is that a king, no less than a prophet, needs to be a ‘messiah’, an anointed one. He cannot do his work on the basis merely of human wisdom, skill and power; he needs the powerful Spirit of Yahweh to make up for his inevitable human shortcomings. And this is what David receives when Samuel anoints him with oil. It will be many years before the kingship granted to David at this time is recognized by all Israel, but from this moment, the hand of God is on him in a special way.
What does it mean?
In New Testament terms, this is the story of the anointing of a ‘messiah’, the ‘Christ’ in Greek. The Hebrew word ‘messiah’ means ‘the anointed one’, and in New Testament times it had come to mean ‘the king like David, who God would send to rescue his people from the Romans, just as he had rescued Israel from the Philistines and made her a great nation by the hand of David’. And of course Luke has Jesus being born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecy in Micah – Bethlehem, the town where the first David, the first ‘messiah’, had been born. So all of these things have New Testament echoes.
First, however, we have to grapple with the failure of Samuel. Despite our revulsion at the circumstances – the purported command of God to slaughter thousands of innocent Amalekite men, women, and children, for the simple reason that they were the descendents of those who, hundreds of years before, had obstructed Israel’s journey to the promised land – we need to recognize that the principle of communal guilt was universally accepted in Old Testament times, and that this guilt could be transmitted down through the generations – just as debt can be today, which, if you think about it, makes as little sense as the transmission of guilt! So Amalek is guilty, God chooses Saul to carry out his sentence, God specifies the terms – the whole nation is to be a total sacrifice to Yahweh – but Saul has better ideas, and so he refuses to obey God’s specific instructions.
This is the story as it’s told, and we have to take it as it is and see what the author does with it. What he does is to establish a timeless principle: to obey is better than sacrifice, but disobedience and rebellion are as bad as witchcraft and idolatry. In other words, there isn’t a blind bit of good in going to Gilgal and organizing a splendid and impressive liturgy (or, for that matter, in modern terms, a splendid and impressive service with a praise and worship band with a sound system worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) if your heart is not right with God – or, to say the same thing in another way, if your will is not determined to do God’s will. To worship rightly is to offer yourself to God; you can’t do this and live in disobedience.
This is important, because it is taken up in the story in chapter 16 as well. Saul wanted to offer Yahweh something splendid at Gilgal (so he said); Samuel was looking for someone splendid to anoint as Saul’s successor as king of Israel, and at first he thought he had found that person in Eliab. But splendour and outward appearance is of absolutely no importance to God: “People look at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart” (16:7). Even after this incident, outward appearances were strongly in Saul’s favour: he was the king of Israel, he commanded the army, and all power was in his hands. But inside, there was ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’, because the heart’s devotion was gone, and also the heart’s assurance that he was Yahweh’s anointed king. The sense of security was gone, and Saul lived the rest of his life in fear and suspicion of possible competitors.
‘Yahweh looks on the heart’. We need to remember that, in Bible terms, ‘the heart’ does not mean what we think it means today: the emotions, the feelings. When the biblical writers wanted to speak about the feelings, they used the illustration of the intestines (and, to be crude, we still talk about being ‘scared shitless’!). But the heart was a symbol for the centre of the personality, the will, the choices, the decisions a person made about the direction of their life. If your heart was set on God, that meant that you understood that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’, and you committed yourself to a ‘whole-hearted’ obedience to the will of God.
Did David always have this? We know that he did not. The rest of his story includes many failures, including, most famously, his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah so that he could take her for himself and hide his sin from the people. Psalm 86 is presented to us as ‘a prayer of David’, and contains this petition:
‘Teach me your way, Yahweh, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name’.
So David (whether or not he actually wrote Psalm 86) is not presented to us in the OT as a man whose heart was always fixed on God; he struggled and sinned and fell just as we do. At times, like us, his heart was divided. But – and here is the crucial thing – he is always presented to us as repenting, returning to Yahweh, and resuming his desire to live in obedience to God.
So, here are the essentials:
First, God does not look on the outward appearance. A tall, strong, good-looking body was not important when God was choosing a new king. All of Saul’s impressiveness (we’re told earlier in 1 Samuel that he was a whole head taller than anyone else in Israel at the time) did not impress God. And today the same is true. An impressive appearance, a huge list of academic qualifications, obvious and impressive giftedness – these are not what God is looking for. Nor is he impressed with a splendid liturgy, a glorious building, or a huge reputation in the neighbourhood. When God is looking for people to serve him and to do his will, this is not important.
This is underlined over and over again in the Old Testament by an interesting narrative theme. In the cultures of the day, it was assumed that the older son would have the birthright and inherit the property, but over and over, in the Old Testament, that did not happen. Esau was Isaac’s older son, but Jacob was the one who became the ancestor of Israel. Reuben was Jacob’s oldest son, but he was disobedient and slept with his father’s concubine, and instead the pride of place went to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. And in Joseph’s family, Manasseh was the older son, but Ephraim became the greater, so that Israel did not say ‘Manasseh and Ephraim’, but ‘Ephraim and Manasseh’.
The same theme is found in the New Testament. The Twelve are not chosen from the ranks of the powerful, the well educated, or the wealthy. Paul spells out this theme in 1 Corinthians where he says,
‘Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him’ (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NIV).
Once again, people are impressed with the outward appearance, but God is not; God looks on the heart. Which leads to the second point:
What God looks for is a faithful and obedient heart. In the Old Testament we’re told ‘Trust in Yahweh with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). So the heart is associated here with trust. A faithful heart is a heart that trusts that God’s ways are good ways, and that shows that trust by following the instructions that God gives.
Which leads us to obedience. As we’ve seen, the word ‘heart’ in the Bible does not refer to the feelings but to the will, the choices we make. Disobedience is what brought Saul down; his heart was not right with God, and so he made wrong choices. The opposite of that is obedience.
David, as we’ve seen, did not always walk in obedience, but he prayed for it and desired it, and when he fell into sin, he repented and returned to the Lord. His faith was not mere outward appearance or mere words; it was genuine love for God expressed in godly living.
Jesus has the same emphasis in the New Testament. In last week’s gospel reading he tells us: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35), and in the Sermon on the Mount he gives us this warning:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Prophecy and exorcism and working miracles look pretty impressive, but they are not conclusive evidence of a heart right with God. “Only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” exhibits that evidence. As Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments”. The test of a faithful life in the Bible is never the depth of its feelings or the impressiveness of its outward appearance, but the faithfulness of its actions.
How is this obedience to be maintained? We know that it’s beyond our capability as fallen and fallible human beings to give perfect obedience to God; ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23); ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). And so comes the absolute necessity of the infilling of the Holy Spirit of God. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”, says Jesus to his disciples (Acts 1:8). For us, as for David, it’s vital that the Spirit of Yahweh ‘comes powerfully’ on us, and not just once, either; we are to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18-21).
What does it mean to us?
No doubt there are many Christians who don’t feel they’re qualified to serve the Lord. They’re going by outward appearances. They don’t have obvious leadership abilities; they don’t have an impressive appearance; they can’t speak well. They don’t have solid academic qualifications. In fact, they are exactly the kind of people Paul speaks about in the passage I just quoted:
‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
In another passage in the gospels, Jesus says,
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do” (Luke 10:21).
In Luke’s account, these words come as Jesus has sent out seventy-two apprentice missionaries to take the gospel message to the towns and villages he intends to visit. After their missionary trip they return to him full of joy; even the demons submit to them in his name, they say. Jesus sees this as evidence that God has chosen them; his disciples are the ‘little children’, and the Pharisees and scribes, who are well educated and knowledgeable in the Law, are the ‘wise and the learned’. But what the disciples have, that the scribes and Pharisees do not, is faith in Jesus, and obedience to him.
Of course, we ought not to despise good theological education and giftedness, but these things are not the essentials. God is looking for something more than that. God does not need ‘the outward appearance’, but he does need ‘the heart’. And this is what we cannot get by without as we seek to follow Jesus.
A heart that chooses to trust in God and obey him is a non-negotiable essential if we want to serve the Lord. No amount of training and education and professional skill can make up for the lack of this. The obedience and faith do not need to be perfect – we have seen that in David – but we do need to watch over ourselves and guard our hearts’ devotion to Jesus. Saul, the tallest man in Israel, was an impressive figure, but God was not impressed. David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, was the humble shepherd boy, and God called him to be the shepherd of his people Israel. Saul’s heart was divided, but David prayed that God would give him an undivided heart. Today we need to echo David’s prayer, and then take courage; we may see ourselves, like David, as the least impressive person in the neighbourhood, but it’s possible that God may take a different view!
And the other essential, as we’ve seen, is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can take a fearful, unsteady person, like Simon Peter who was brave enough to follow Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard but not brave enough to identify with him there – “I do not know the man” – and work such a miracle in his heart that he will stand up and preach a powerful sermon on the day of Pentecost, and three thousand people are converted. We Christians are called to live lives that are totally inexplicable apart from the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not need an impressive appearance; we need faithful hearts, full of the Holy Spirit of God and walking in step with the Spirit. With that, God can get to work.