God is in the habit of graciously turning grief into joy. Sometimes, however, the Lord does so in startling ways. So those who grieve learn to stay on the lookout for God’s gracious comfort.
The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday begins in deep grief over the tragic character of Israel’s King Saul. He’s tall, strong and handsome. You might argue that, before his downfall, Saul was also both pious and courageous. Yet the king’s desire to serve God also sometimes clouded his judgment. This, the narrator reports not once but twice in I Samuel 15, makes God “grieve” that God ever made Saul king.
That, however, begs the question, “Did God somehow make a mistake when God made Saul king? Didn’t God know what kind of monarch he would turn out to be?” They’re the kinds of questions that yield no easy answers. Yet the Old Testament does give several examples of God being sorry about what God did. For instance, Genesis 11:7 reports that God was “grieved” that God had created the people who lived before the Flood.
God, after all, is sovereign. God also, however, creates people in a way that leaves room for both human success and failure. Any notion that God doesn’t mourn human folly comes from pagan rather than biblical sources.
Samuel shares God’s sorrow. After all, while he has invested much in Israel’s first monarchy, Saul has turned that reign into a fiasco. So the prophet clearly regrets his role in making Saul king.
Those who preach and teach this text as well as our listeners may have similar regrets. After all, we may grieve over what we did to a family member or failed to do for a friend, what we did at church or neglected to do in our neighborhood. 1 Samuel 16’s preachers and teachers may even want to look for ways to share their own regrets or invite hearers to somehow share theirs.
Yet while God’s people sometimes linger over such regrets, God, as one scholar notes, doesn’t waste time feeling sorry about God or people did. God is, after all, always moving God’s creation toward the future.
So even when God’s first choice fails, God doesn’t pout or throw up God’s hands and quit. God opens another road. Our God is, after all, an endlessly resourceful God. The Lord providentially turns failures, dead ends, and regrets into new beginnings. Earlier it was time for King Saul. He, however, has brought his monarchy to a dead end. So now it’s time for God to open a new chapter in Israel’s life by choosing a new monarch for her.
Sometimes, however, opening a new chapter is dangerous. In this case, it worries Samuel. After all, while God has sent him to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Israel already has a king. And as the leaders of the world and even Saul himself will later persistently show, no throne has real room for more than one king.
So God disguises the true nature of Samuel’s mission. While Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to a sacrifice, the prophet and we know that sacrifice isn’t the main reason for the prophet’s visit. In fact, we’re not even sure Samuel sacrificed anything that day.
You and I are certain, however, that the prophet is visiting Jesse’s family to anoint Israel’s newest king. So when Jesse’s oldest son steps in front of Samuel, we can almost hear him whisper to himself, “This has to be the guy. This Eliab’s a take-charge guy who would make a perfect king. He’s got ‘future’ written all over him.”
Perhaps, then, the prophet’s already reaching for his bottle of oil when God stops him in his tracks. “Looks aren’t everything,” God reminds him. “While people look at faces, I’m mostly interested in what’s in people’s hearts.”
When he first introduces us to Saul, 1 Samuel’s narrator refers to him as “an impressive young man.” Now, however, God insists that the good looks that impress people don’t necessarily impress God. God is most interested in the quality of the new king’s character, in a heart that loves and serves God.
Appearances naturally impress most of us more than character. If you wonder that, ask yourself how many unattractive people grace our advertisements, movies and television shows. Aren’t good-looking people the ones who get the most dates, first jobs and least criticism?
Our God, however, looks beneath the skin. God wants to know if people know, for example, how to weep and pray with others. God wants to know if people have a passion for justice and a heart for the lost.
So the parade of Jesse’s sons continues. Abinidab, Shammah and their five brothers all pass before an expectant Samuel. Yet God renders the same negative verdict on each of them. In fact, the narrator doesn’t even bother to name most of Jesse’s sons whom the Lord rejects.
So must God and Samuel grieve forever for Saul? Has Samuel looked for a new king in the wrong family? Has the prophet somehow missed a vital clue? Or is there, perhaps, another son who hasn’t yet marched in his family’s parade?
When the prophet asks Jesse if he has any more sons, we can only imagine how much this question baffles Jesse. Remember, Samuel still hasn’t told him why his sons have to parade before him. What’s more, the prophet insists the Lord has already rejected his most important sons.
Why, then, Jesse must surely wonder, does the prophet ask about the family runt? Yet he answers, “Well, there’s still the youngest” (note that he doesn’t even give him a name yet). “He’s out working on our family farm. “Go get him,” the prophet basically tells Jesse. “In fact, let’s just stop and wait for him to get back.” So the story stops: no shepherd, no parade, and no coronation.
When the youngest (we still don’t know his name) finally saunters in, we can imagine that, as one pastor notes, thistles and perhaps a disgusting odor cling to him. How, Samuel and we may wonder, can this be the person for whom we’ve been standing around and waiting? On top of that, God has just told Samuel not to pay any attention to a person’s appearance. Yet what’s the very first thing the narrator tells us about Jesse’s youngest son? “He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features.”
Clearly what one scholar calls “this picture of health” dazzles the narrator. However, the shepherd’s good looks are not what impress God. It’s in his heart that God seems to see what God wants in a king. “This is the one,” God tells his prophet.
So Samuel, perhaps with a startled look shading his face, reaches for his bottle of oil. He pours it over the shepherd boy’s head, anointing him as Israel’s next, and, for now, anyway, least likely, king. Only after all of this happens do we (and, presumably, Samuel) finally learn the new monarch’s name: David.
“Blessed are you who weep now,” David’s descendant will someday say in Luke 6:21. “For you will laugh.” God and Samuel have wept over Saul. Now, however, it’s time for them to laugh. David will, after all, turn out to be Israel’s greatest king.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach have also wept. Attached to such grief is often the kind of regret God and Samuel experienced over making Saul king. You and I may regret not having done more for or having done something to those who have died.
To live on this side of the new creation’s curtain is to grieve, for no one lives forever. So to live on this side of the new creation is also to regret, for we’re all sorry for things we’ve done and failed to do. Thankfully, then, God is graciously in the business of turning grief into joy.
Don’t, however, be surprised by the ways God may graciously choose to do so. God turns Samuel and the rest of Israel’s weeping into laughter. However, God does so through the least likely person, “the youngest” of Jesse’s sons.
Of course, it’s neither the first nor the last time God surprises us with the way God turns tears into laughter. Much like God chose David over his brothers, after all, God chooses Jacob over Esau, Rachel over Leah, and Joseph over his older brothers.
What’s more, David eventually has a descendant who looks no more like a source of comfort than his ancestor does. Jesus is, after all, born to peasants in a barn, rejected throughout his life as an itinerant preacher and finally even tried and executed as a common criminal.
Yet it’s precisely through this unlikely great grandson of Israel’s most unlikely king that God comforts God’s grieving, regretful children. David’s descendant Jesus is, after all, the One who lives, dies and rises again to turn our weeping over our sins into laughter over our salvation. Christ is the One who also sends his Spirit to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds.
He often does so, however, through surprising people. So this morning preachers, teachers and hearers alike may not think of themselves as likely candidates for turning anyone’s sorrow into joy. Yet we’re precisely the kinds of people whom God longs to use to turning sorrow into joy, mourning into dancing.
Perhaps those who preach and teach 1 Samuel 16 have similar stories to one my wife and I have. We were at a very low point on a Tuesday afternoon. Little more than thirty-six hours earlier we’d learned that I have an often manageable but usually incurable cancer.
Less than twenty-four hours earlier I’d also endured a very uncomfortable bone marrow biopsy. Doctors had just done surgery to implant a catheter in my chest that was somewhat uncomfortable. I was still experiencing miserable bouts of profuse sweating.
Yet in my misery, who should walk in the door of my hospital room but four dear members of a sister Christian Reformed Church? The news of my sickness and sight of me clearly weighed heavily on them.
Yet these Christian brothers and sisters had the courage to sit and talk with us. Then their pastor had the grace to pray with us … in Bahasa Indonesian! God began to turn our tears into laughter … in a language of which I speak no more than five words.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13 Commentary