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1 Samuel 16:1-13

March 24, 2014

This story introduces David to us for the first time. It marks a major turning point in the story of 1 Samuel; the focus moves from Saul to David.

Saul is the first king of Israel, chosen by God and anointed by Samuel the prophet, but he ends up as a tragic figure. He fails to rigorously follow God’s command; he hesitates, he acts foolishly and selfishly, and he is timid when he needs to be brave. At the end of chapter 15 it is clear that his kingship has lost God’s support. It can only end badly now.

It seems strange that one chosen by God could end up being a failure, but the implied narrative is that being chosen does not protect us from our own decisions. We are chosen because we have what it takes, but that doesn’t mean we will choose to do what it takes. Being chosen does not violate our free will and the openness of the future.

At the beginning of chapter 16 God has to call Samuel out of his stupor of grief. Yes, Saul is a failure; yes, this is a tragedy; but now we must move on to another possibility, a new hope. God has already seen who the next king must be and tells Samuel to fill his horn with oil and go to the village of Bethlehem.

This is risky. Anointing a new king when the old king still sits on the throne is treason. Samuel will be a target for execution–as will be whoever is anointed. Samuel is afraid Saul will find out. So God instructs Samuel to make his visit look innocent: bring a calf and say you’re there to make a sacrifice. The people of the village are not fooled. What’s Samuel, the great prophet (who is no longer a friend of the king), doing in our insignificant village? This can only be bad news. The elders come trembling to Samuel: “Do you come in peace?” He says he does; he says he’s there just to sacrifice; but does anyone believe him?

Samuel picks out the family of Jesse to join him in his sacrifice and sacred meal. When Samuel sees the eldest son, Eliab, approach, he is impressed by his stature. He looks like an impressive leader. “Surely this must be the one God wants me to anoint,” thinks Samuel. But Saul was also a very tall fellow–and look at how he turned out! God reminds Samuel not to look at outward appearance; look at the heart.

One by one the sons of Jesse are introduced. God rejects them all. But there is one son missing–the youngest, who is tending the sheep. He is the least important, doing the least important job, in an unimportant family–a family that even includes a Moabite (Ruth) and two other scandalous women (Tamar and Rahab) in its ancestry! Finally, the youngest son is called for and … surprise–he’s incredibly handsome! This is the one God has chosen. God has looked at the heart and found the right heart; ironically, he’s also good looking, though this is not supposed to matter!

Samuel anoints David. He is now the new king of Israel–though only secretly and in-waiting. David is filled with God’s wind/spirit/strength/frenzy/ecstasy/inspiration. In the next verse we learn that this same spirit has deserted Saul.

So begins the story of David. He has the humblest origins. He is the totally unexpected king. But he will become the ideal template for all future kings of Israel–until Jesus.

I have to admit I have never much liked David; I have always identified more with Saul. Saul is a more common man, unsure of himself, lacking confidence. His weaknesses and limitations are the ordinary ones. David, on the other hand, has spectacular weaknesses: adultery and murder and Machiavellian deceit of the highest order. But unlike Saul he is bold and creative and charismatic and handsome–and lucky. Supposedly he is also more passionately loyal to God, though I don’t quite buy it.

David developed a reputation as a military genius, but also as a sensitive, spiritual genius. Though his authorship is doubtful, many of the psalms in the Book of Psalms were attributed to him. Whether he wrote any of these psalms or not is beside the point; the point is that he was the type of person who could and would write such psalms. The 23rd Psalm famously begins by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd.” David was a shepherd; he knew what that job was like. And though the job was considered to be at the bottom of the social wrung, it is a beautiful metaphor for God’s care and protection of us.

If a psalm such as this one actually captures the heart of David, then I can forgive him, and I can let go of my envy of his success.

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