Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 17, 2018

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 Commentary

There’s almost always more going on than meets the eye.  Whether it’s at a cosmic or molecular level, we just can’t always see what’s really going on.  So, for example, the 1973 Watergate break-in initially looked like little more than a clumsy effort at burglary.  It turned, however, out to be part of President Nixon and his aides’ scheme to discredit the president’s opponents.

There’s more going on than meets the eye in the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.  That deceptive appearance begins with our text’s inclusio: “Samuel left for Ramah (15:34) … Samuel then went to Ramah” (16:13).  Both this passage and at least two of its actors, in other words, end virtually right where they started.

That, says biblical scholar Roger Nam (Preaching This Week, June 14, 2015), makes 1 Samuel 16 seem like a kind of literary tangent.  He says “This digression functions as a sort of parenthetical remark, like an excursus.”  It seems to break the narrative flow of King Saul’s rise and fall.

Yet 1 Samuel 16 is much more than a disruption in that movement.  In fact, much more than meets the eye goes on in its Samuel’s life.  A grieving God sends God’s grieving prophet to anoint a young man to replace Saul as Israel’s king.  Since, however, Samuel knows that Saul still sits on Israel’s throne, he worries that if the king hears about his mission, he’ll kill him.

So God concocts a kind of elaborate ruse to cover Samuel’s tracks.  “Take a heifer with you,” the Lord tells the prophet in verses 2b-3, “and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’.”  And when Bethlehem’s nervous elders do, in fact, ask why the prophet has come to Bethlehem, he tells them, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.”

So what meets the eye is nothing more than a prophet’s trip to Bethlehem to offer God a sacrifice.  Samuel even invites Jesse’s family and the city fathers to join him in offering that sacrifice.  On top of all that, Samuel carries the ruse to its virtual end by begging everyone not to sit down for the sacrifice (11) until David arrives to join them.

Yet there’s another way in which more than meets the eye goes on in our text.  It takes place in a Bethlehem that’s what Scott Hoezee calls “a modest place to find a king.”  It’s hardly the kind of prominent city with a huge population in which you’d normally hunt for royalty.  On top of that, it seems as if members of the town council and Jesse’s family are Bethlehem’s only citizens that Samuel invites to join him.  So there are relatively “few eyes” on 1 Samuel 16’s events.

More than meets the eye also occurs as Jesse’s sons arrive for what they assume is to be just a sacrifice with the visiting prophet.  After all, as they arrive, Samuel evaluates them, not for their fitness to join him in sacrificing to the Lord, but for their fitness to serve as Israel’s next king.  So those who know more is going on than meets the eye might even imagine a kind of figurative red carpet in Samuel’s mind’s eye on which Jesse’s sons walk into the place of the sacrifice.

The walk is likely familiar to both those who proclaim and hear 1 Samuel 16.  Each son of Jesse, but apparently particularly the oldest, seems impressive.  Eliab appears to be the kind of take-charge person who has “future” written all over him.  Jesse’s oldest son is, in fact, so impressive that Samuel quickly deduces that he must be the person whom God has chosen to replace King Saul.  What, in a sense, then, almost immediately meets Samuel’s eye is Israel’s next king.

But, of course, more is going on than meets the eye.  God, after all, isn’t particularly interested in the “eyeball test.”  God is far more interested in a kind of “cardiac test.”  Saul, after all, had passed the eyeball test; he looked like a successful king.  Yet his heart wasn’t in the right place.  Now, says our narrator, God wants someone whose heart is in good shape (7).  God, in other words, wants someone in whom there’s more going on than meets the eye.

So seven more of Jesse’s sons parade down Samuel’s mental red carpet to join their city fathers, dad and the prophet at the sacrifice.  We might imagine at least some if not all of them also pass the “eye test.”  Yet Samuel judges that each of them in unfit for service.  So a story that begins with Saul’s rejection now threatens to grind to a halt with God’s rejection of all of Jesse’s sons.

Yet by now Samuel too seems to finally realize that more is going on than meets the eye.  He, after all, turns to ask Jesse if he has any more sons.  “Well, yeah,” we can hear Jesse sigh, “but he’s too young and unimportant to join us.  He’s out on the back 40, herding our sheep.”  Jesse doesn’t even bother naming this runt of his family; he’s no more than “the youngest” (11b).  “Send for him,” the prophet perhaps almost abruptly cuts him off.  “In fact, we won’t even start until he gets here.”

It’s, of course, somewhat ironic that God insists that God is far more interested in a person’s character than his or her outward appearance.  When, after all, David finally does show up for the party, our narrator reports, “He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features” (12).  So while God may not be particularly interested in people’s looks, our narrator seems to be.

Our text’s end is quite abrupt in comparison to the fairly lengthy run-up to it.  God, after all, quickly tells Samuel David “is the one!  Get up and anoint him to be Israel’s next king” (12b).  In front of David’s brothers and father, as well as Bethlehem’s councilmen, Samuel then anoints David to be Israel’s next king.  From that day on, reports our narrator “the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power” (13).

That’s it.  There are no speeches.  No big party.  No inaugural or coronation ball.  No grand coronation parade.  No, “God Save the King” or “Hail to the Chief.”  Just, “Samuel then went to Ramah,” (16:13), right back, in other words to where he’d started from (15:34).  Newly anointed David too seems to go right back where he came from, back to herding sheep.

What’s more, nothing seems to have changed in and for Israel either.  Sure, the Spirit who has abandoned Saul (16:14) has moved in with David.  But our text’s end, Saul is still Israel’s sitting king.  While David is Israel’s anointed king in whom the Spirit rests, Saul is still on Israel’s throne at text’s end.  So Israel still has the same increasingly self-destructive monarch who continues his steep plunge toward apparent mental and spiritual illness.

Yet at 1 Samuel 16’s end, more is going on than meets the eye.  After all, God has opened up a new future for Israel, her monarchy and the world.  Even though virtually no one sees or hears about it, God is quietly on the move, getting firmly behind and with Israel’s next king, David, for God’s glory as well as the blessing of not just Israel, but also the whole creation.

Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 16 might use it as a kind of springboard to an exploration of how God is, in fact, always far harder at work in our world than often meets our own eyes.  We can see some of God’s most public acts of toppling tyrants, ending wars and healing broken relationships.  Yet our text reminds us that God is always at work, 24/7/365, even when we can’t see or it.  God’s adopted sons and daughters can take heart because God is always working, often in more ways than meets the eye.

Illustration Idea

The February 13, 2018 Morning Call reported on FBI agents’ investigation of Allentown (PA) mayor Ed Pawlowski.  Agents told him he could potentially lessen his corruption charge’s severity if he cooperated with their investigation into what The Morning Call referred to as “pay-to-play politics.”

In the course of their conversation, FBI agent Carmen DiMario told Mayor Pawlowski, ”There’s more going on here than meets the eye, and I think you know there’s more going on here than meets the eye. I think you have knowledge of this.”

Agent Scott Curtis added: “I think you know about campaign contributions coming to you and coming to other people in Allentown City Hall in return for steering contracts to certain people.”

“That’s not the case,” Pawlowski stubbornly replied.  After all, only those who have eyes to see are able to see more than what meets the eye


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