Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 13, 2021
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 Commentary
This old story about God’s choice of David as the new king of Israel fairly bubbles with contemporary relevance, especially in America. I wrote the first draft of this Sermon Commentary just a few weeks after the inauguration of the Biden/Harris team. The words of Shakespeare’s witches of Eastwick described the national mood perfectly: “Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and caldron bubble.” Although our Constitution is designed to guarantee the “peaceful transfer of power,” there were moments when it felt like we were within inches of the kind of coup that had just happened in Myanmar.
There was toil and trouble bubbling in ancient Israel, too. Thus, old Samuel saw that his God- given mission of anointing a new king was fraught with danger. After all, the old king, Saul, was still very much in power, even though God had rejected him. Saul’s handsome head had gotten too big for his own good; he took on roles reserved for priests. And he had decided that he could make his own rules; he was, after all, king. So, God rejected him from being king and in the opening verses of chapter 16 God directs Samuel to find a new king up in Bethlehem.
But God’s directions put Samuel in immediate danger, because the road to Bethlehem led straight through Gibeah of Saul. Saul would naturally want to know what his former mentor was doing on the Bethlehem road. Telling him the truth would be tantamount to treason. So, God gives Samuel legitimate cover. Take a heifer with you to sacrifice when you anoint the new king. Tell the old king the first part of that story—a half truth, not an untruth, and necessary if God’s plan was to work. And work it must. Everything depended on it.
The future of Israel depended on it. Saul had proven himself unworthy of leading God’s chosen people. With a king like him, Israel’s entire future was in jeopardy because they would naturally follow his lead and stop following Yahweh and obeying his commands (15:11). If that happened, Israel’s mission to the nations of the world would be compromised, and all would be lost. Saul had been the people’s choice (chapter 8), while David would be God’s choice (16:1). The next king had to be a man after God’s own heart (13:14). Getting this right meant everything for Israel, and the world.
So, the stage is set for God’s next great act in the drama of salvation. Samuel did what the Lord said, taking the heifer for sacrifice up the road to Bethlehem. The elders of the town meet Samuel with trembling, partly because he was the great man of God and partly because he had removed Saul as King. Their shalom was put in jeopardy by the arrival of Samuel, but he assures them that things are just fine. “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” He invites them to come to the sacrifice and, per God’s previous order, includes Jesse and his family in the invitation.
Here comes Jesse and his 7 fine sons. When Samuel sees the first born, he is sure that Eliab is the one. After all, Eliab is the replica of Saul, handsome and tall, an imposing figure, exactly what a king should be by the world’s standards. “Surely, the Lord’s anointed one stands here before the Lord.” It is more than interesting that the word “anointed” is the Hebrew word messiach (messiah). This new king will be the Lord’s Messiah. Samuel says more than he knows.
But God sets a new standard for the king of his people. “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” It would be tempting to build a whole sermon around those famous words, because they apply to so many areas of human relationships. But don’t let the homiletical juiciness of those words cause you to lose sight of the point of the story. It is about God’s choice of the next king of Israel, and the world.
And what matters in a leader, especially the leader of God’s chosen people, is that leader’s heart. Does that leader have a heart for God? More importantly, is this potential king a man after God’s own heart? Is this person God’s choice, as opposed to the people’s choice? Only God knows the heart, so only God can choose.
That’s what the story is about, as evidenced by the repetition of the phrase, “the Lord has not chosen this one,” and the summary, “the Lord has not chosen these.” I imagine there was desperation in Samuel’s voice when he asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse’s answer is not promising. “There is still the youngest, but he is tending sheep.” Oh great! The eighth in line, the runt of the litter. And a mere shepherd at that.
But, don’t sell God short! God knows what he is doing. God has a habit of choosing the least likely, the youngest, the outcast, the foolish and the weak and the lowly (I Corinthians 1:26-31) to do his most important work. And God has the ability to use the supposed flaws of his elect to accomplish his purpose, like choosing a shepherd to be the greatest king and the forerunner of the Good Shepherd (John 10).
Sure enough, no sooner does this youngest son come strolling in smelling of sheep than the Lord says, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” And, surprise, he is one handsome dude! That wasn’t the reason for God’s choice, but it was God’s gift to his choice. God is nothing if not complicated. So was his chosen servant; he would become famous and infamous, a warrior and a musician, a man after God’s own heart and a man who would follow his own heart at times with disastrous results. No one ever said God’s chosen people were perfect, but, the Bible says, God can use them just the same.
Thus, Samuel carries out God’s mission. “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers and from that day the Spirit of the Lord came upon David.” This is the first time we hear the name of this new king, the new Messiah. But we will hear his name forever, because it is from his body that the Messiah will come. “The Lord will give him the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32).”
The story ends with Samuel going home. His role in the drama is over. Now a new character takes center stage—the King of God’s own choosing, as demonstrated powerfully by the presence of the Spirit of the Lord in his life. It is no accident that the next story opens with the news that “the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” Ironically, or providentially, the newly anointed King is called to soothe Saul’s tortured spirit by playing his shepherd’s harp and to serve in Saul’s army with his rugged outdoorsy skills. Saul has no idea who David really is. Only the family of Jesse knows. David’s public coronation will wait until the right time, God’s time.
As I said before, God is the central actor in this story—not Saul, not Samuel, not even David. God rejects Saul, sends Samuel, carries out his plan, chooses David, and fills him with the Spirit. This is a crucial chapter in the long story of redemption worked through Israel, the story that has Jesus as its center. The allusions to Jesus are rife in this story: the town of Bethlehem, the least of Jesse’s sons, a shepherd anointed to be King, the Spirit of the Lord coming upon him at the beginning of his work, even before anyone knew who he was or what he was doing.
One of the curious, even troubling features of this story is the fact that God changed direction with respect to Saul. “And the Lord was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel.” Had God made a mistake? Has God now changed his mind? In other places, God says that he does not change his mind the way humans do (cf. 15:29). But now here, God grieves as though he has made a mistake he now regrets. How do we know that God won’t do the same with David, or with us?
Here’s how The New Interpreters Bible explains. “Saul and the people were a conditional experiment that depended on obedience (12:14-15, 25), but the Davidic kingship would rest upon God’s unconditional commitment (cf. II Samuel 7:13-15).” Thus, God can change his mind regarding specific incidents (think of Nineveh’s surprising repentance and God’s relenting on the punishment he threatened through Jonah). But God will never change his mind regarding his plan to save the world through the Son of God who was the Son of David. God may change his mind about circumstances, but never about covenant.
On a personal front, this story reminds us that it is crucial to get it right when choosing a leader. That is true not only for a nation or a church, but also for each of us personally. The future depends on choosing the right King. A king like Saul can lead you to ruin. A king like David and David’s greatest Son can lead to shalom. God has given us the right King. May each of us choose to follow him. Our future depends on it.
The narrative details in this story point to the hand of God in human events, which reminded me of an interview I saw on the news the other day. Martha Teichner has written a delightful book titled, When Harry Met Minnie: An Unexpected Friendship and the Gift of Love Beyond Loss. It’s all about a series of chance meetings that resulted in the adoption of a dog to keep another dog company and the human friendship that sprouted from that canine relationship. It looks like an adorable book. But I was frozen in my seat when Ms. Teichner said with deep solemnity, “I have absolute faith in fate.” All of those happy occurrences were simply an impersonal fate being worked out. How much more comforting to have absolute faith in a personal God who works through the narrative details of our lives, especially when that God loved us enough to become one of us.
Speaking of TV, my wife and I spent many a COVID afternoon binge watching “The Crown,” the Netflix special on Queen Elizabeth and her, how shall I say it, interesting family. For hours, we watched the arcane and inane customs of the British monarchy, as well as the insanely complicated relationships in her family. Though the Queen is legally the head of the Church of England, the King of that church seemed to play little role in royal things. That reminded me of Saul, and later David, and all the leaders of the nations, including mine. It is crucial to get it right when choosing which Sovereign to follow.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!