When I was in college, I was a theatre major. That’s why when my two-year-old is being overly dramatic, Megan and I know EXACTLY who she gets it from. (me)
But as a theatre major in college, you are constantly auditioning for SOMETHING. There’s always a monologue to memorize, a 16-bar ballad to perfect, a piece of choreography to learn. You’re either auditioning for something that is coming up soon, or you’re working on something new for the next set of auditions.
And even though there is nerves and excitement with each audition, there is nothing quite as exhilarating, or as devastating, as the walk up to the window where the director has just posted the cast list. I distinctly remember multiple times when I had given my heart and soul in an audition, only to find out that I had been passed over and the role given to someone else.
Have you ever been passed over? Maybe it wasn’t theatre for you. Maybe it was trying out for the team. Or it was being picked last for kickball. Or you got passed over for that job opportunity.
It’s happened to all of us in some way or another. But there’s also the other end of that equation.
Have you ever made a judgment about someone based on the first impression you get from their appearance? Of course you have! We all do it!
We are often swayed by what we see on the outside. Today there continues to be widespread discrimination based on outward appearance, and many studies have shown that attractive, well-dressed people get more callbacks on job applications, are more likely to get promoted, and are consistently paid more than those who are judged to be less attractive. And this is despite having equal training, performance, and competence.
There’s a reason why we have sayings like, “Looks aren’t everything,” or “looks can be deceiving,” or “you can’t judge a book by it’s ________”
We have to say these things to fight against the very natural instinct to just live our lives based on the snap judgments and gut instincts we get from first impressions and outward appearances.
Now, we are not the first people to deal with this concept, and today’s Scripture discusses the exact scenario of outward appearances and inner character. You can probably already guess, but we’ll figure out which one God cares about. But as we read, we’ll also discern what our path is forward if it turns out that we’ve been cultivating the wrong part of ourselves. Are we disqualified from being used by God?
Today’s message will cover all of 1 Samuel 16, but let’s read together the first 18 verses…
SCRIPTURE READING: 1 Samuel 16:1-18
Our story starts with a special message from God to Samuel, the aging prophet. He was the last great judge over Israel, but he was also the leader replaced by the people when they requested a king. And though that stung at the time, God still had plans for Samuel. Samuel was the one who anointed Saul as king, and he spent the entire beginning of Saul’s reign acting as a mentor: guiding, teaching, and pouring into the new king.
But Saul was not the perfect servant king that the people needed and that Yahweh desired. He was faithful only to himself, which had gotten Samuel rather depressed. The one he had put his hopes in had been exposed as a fraud.
Think of the disappointment he must have felt in trusting in someone so deeply, only to be left with false promises and unfulfilled dreams. So Yahweh, like any good friend of someone in a slump, interrupts Samuel’s depressive state, “How long you gonna be sad about Saul, since I’ve completely moved on from him? I’m calling you into action again, king-maker. Get your anointing supplies ready and go to a guy named Jesse in Bethlehem, because I have chosen for myself one of his sons to be king.”
Before Samuel even makes the first move, Yahweh has it all settled. He’s chosen the new king. All Samuel has to do is go make it official. Yahweh is the one who is sovereign. He’s the one reigning. But Samuel has a BIT of a predicament in following God’s orders.
“Ummm, excuse me, God? Well, King Saul is still on the throne. How am I supposed to anoint a new king, when there isn’t exactly a vacancy in the position? What if Saul hears about it? He’ll kill me for sure!”
And Samuel isn’t completely off-base with this fear. The last time we saw Saul, he was frantically trying to hold on to his power and his reputation, even though he knew that God had rejected him as king over Israel. As far as Saul is concerned, his firing from the job is a secret that only he and Samuel know about. And as long as no one else finds out, he can hold on to his throne.
We can see why Samuel is a bit reluctant to go out and do such a bold, public act of defiance to the current leader.
But Yahweh has a plan. Again, he’s got all the details figured out, and gives Samuel a passable excuse to be out and about in Bethlehem. “Just take a cow with you and say that you’re there to sacrifice to the Lord. Invite the whole village. That way, Jesse and his sons will be there, and the anointing can be part of the rest of the sacrifice ceremony.”
Now, I don’t know if this is God’s allowance of white lies, but it’s clear that God is okay with Saul staying in the dark on Samuel’s true motives. In any case, the cover story serves as enough protection for Samuel to feel willing to go along with Yahweh’s plan. So he sets out for Bethlehem.
When he gets there, there is a bit of confusion and fear about why he is there. The elders ask, “Do you come in peace?”
After all, the last chapter saw Samuel show up to Saul’s victory celebration, yell at the king, and then pull out his sword and kill the captured Amalekite king. Samuel’s current reputation is that he is not someone to mess with. And the elders of Bethlehem aren’t so sure why he would be coming to their tiny shepherding village, since he has never come there before.
Samuel allays their fears by giving them Yahweh’s cover story, and makes a point to invite Jesse and his sons to the sacrifice.
As Jesse’s sons arrive and parade in front of Samuel, we get a view into his inner monologue along with the Lord’s responses. Now, I’m not sure if everyone in the village was just processing by as part of the sacrifice ritual, or if Samuel made a clear announcement in front of everyone that he wanted Jesse’s sons to be presented to him. But it seems clear that Samuel is taking careful notice of each son one at a time, and so maybe they and their father Jesse knew SOMETHING was up, even if they didn’t know exactly what was going on.
The eldest son is presented first, and Samuel sees how tall and strong he is, and he thinks, “Nice, God picked another tall, strong warrior to lead his people. This is total king material. Give me a second while I just grab out my anointing oil…”
But Yahweh cuts him off and says, “Nope, not this one. Don’t get carried away by his outward appearance. He’s not what I’m looking for. I don’t look at the same things that other people look at. My eyesight is better than human eyesight. My eyesight can peer into the very heart of every human. I can see things you could never see with your eyes.”
God has just set a new trajectory from the previous king with that simple phrase. While Saul was lauded for his height, and handsome features, God is saying that’s not what is important. God isn’t looking for someone who LOOKS like a good leader. He’s looking for some other quality. A quality that we can’t see on the outside. God is looking at the heart, because God wants the heart.
So the second son of Jesse is brought forward. But he’s not the chosen one. Then the third son, but Samuel gives the same answer. And this parade of sons keeps going until Jesse has had seven sons pass by Samuel, all of them not making the cut.
In Jewish traditions, the number seven has the double meaning of not only the number “seven,” but also meaning completion or perfection. The fact that Jesse had seven sons means that he had a perfect number of heirs. He had a complete set, and the whole entirety of Jesse’s sons have been presented to Samuel. He’s seen all seven. But none of them were chosen by God.
Could Samuel have heard wrong? God DID say Jesse of Bethlehem, right? Yeah, he had heard right, and he had the right guy. And he had just seen the seventh son, the son of completion. The full set….unless…
“You wouldn’t happen to have another son, would you?” Samuel asked Jesse.
“Another son? Beyond my perfect set? I mean, yeah, I do have one more. The youngest. But I didn’t think it necessary to bring him, since he was the Ooops-Surprise boy that came after I had my complete seven. I don’t really count him on the same level as my other sons, so I left him behind to tend the sheep.”
And though we might think that’s a harsh way for Jesse to view his youngest, Samuel would have been thinking something else.
“A shepherd? Yeah, there’s no way this son is going to be the one God has picked to be king. This trip was a bust.”
We modern hearers of this story have a romantic idea of shepherds, based on the Bible imagery, and the stories of Jesus. But in Samuel’s day, keeping the sheep was not a coveted position in Israel. Slaves were shepherds. Social rejects were shepherds. So for Jesse to have put his youngest son, his smallest son, his most insignificant son in charge of the sheep tells us all we need to know about how the youngest boy of Jesse was viewed by his father and brothers. It tells us tons about how he was viewed in the community.
But, the youngest son hasn’t been presented yet, so Samuel says to bring him. Someone goes to fetch him. Everyone waits.
Can you imagine the awkward tension? Here’s the old prophet, grumpily standing there. Here’s Jesse and his basketball team of sons. Here’s the cow, lazily munching on some grass. Here’s the whole village of Bethlehem, still not sure what exactly is happening. But no one says a word. They all just wait.
Finally, the youngest son of Jesse is brought to Samuel.
Our Scripture says that he was “glowing with health and had a fine appearance,” but a closer translation would be that he was hot and sweaty from running and that he had a boyish appearance. In other words, not king material. Cute kid, maybe. But hardly the warrior king that Israel was expecting. He definitely wasn’t what Samuel was expecting.
But the voice of the Lord cuts in immediately, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
And to Samuel’s credit, he doesn’t balk, he doesn’t question it. He takes the horn of oil and anoints him in the presence of his brothers. David has officially been declared by Samuel, the king-maker, to be the next king of Israel.
David, the runt of the pack, the weakest of Jesse’s sons, the one passed over by every other member of his family and community.
And then Samuel leaves. Unlike with Saul, Samuel does not foster a mentor relationship with the young king. In fact, Samuel will have almost nothing to do with David from here on out. This really was Samuel’s last mission.
And this is the crux of our story, as the Scripture tells us that the Spirit of the Lord comes mightily on David. Even though he would not become king for another decade or more, David was already the bearer of the spirit of God, the true ruler of the kingdom. At the same time, the spirit abandoned Saul, leaving him terrified, anxious, and paranoid.
And that’s what we see next in our narrative: a tormented Saul. Remember, the last time we saw Saul, he was unrepentant and defiant against the Lord, and so the Lord sent Samuel to declare to him that he had been rejected as king. The Lord had regretted making Saul king, and withdrew his presence from him. And now some time has passed, and Saul is increasingly tormented by what’s referred to as an “evil spirit” from the Lord.
What? God sent an evil spirit to torment Saul?
I was confused by this a bit, but I found an interesting perspective in my research from Old Testament scholar John Goldingay. He says that the Old Testament does not talk about evil spirits in the way the gospels do, and raises questions about whether the idea of evil spirits the way we think of them in the gospels or in movies is intended here. On top of this, the Hebrew word in this story is more like the English word “bad” than the English word “wicked.” While it can suggest something morally bad, it can also suggest that the thing we experience is bad, which then brings trouble or suffering to us. If we think of God sending Saul a bad spirit, even a bad TEMPER, we’ll probably get the right idea.
And whether this was a supernatural temper tantrum, or a psychological disorder like paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar illness, that doesn’t change the fact that everyone around Saul attributes it to being “from God.” And this is because of the worldview of the Israelites, which states that Yahweh is sovereign over everything. There is nothing outside of his purview, outside of his authority. Good weather was “from Yahweh,” and bad business deals were “from Yahweh,” and victories in battle were “from Yahweh,” and illnesses were “from Yahweh.”
So Saul’s servants suggest that some nice music would be a good prescription to calm him down whenever he gets into one of his “moods.” Many of us know the healing power of music.
Through some divinely inspired happenstance, one of the servants just “happens” to know David, son of Jesse. In fact, he can vouch for the fact that he’s a good musician, he’s got courage and strength, and the Lord is with him.
And so, we have a situation where David is not only chosen by God, but chosen by Saul himself to enter the royal household.
And we’re told that David is still keeping the sheep when Saul sends for him, so apparently his brothers and father haven’t exactly changed their attitude toward their kid brother after the anointing by Samuel. David has been quietly waiting, unsure what to make of the crazy day when he was anointed the next king of Israel. He hasn’t pushed himself to the front, trying to claim for himself any authority or privilege. He’s been where he’s always been. Tending the sheep. Excluded from the group. Excluded from the Sevens Sons of Jesse. But now King Saul has sent for him.
He goes. Saul likes him and makes him an armor bearer, which is maybe a step up from shepherd, but still is just a grunt job, carrying around the king’s armor. And whenever Saul went into one of his “moods,” David would play music for the king, and that would soothe him, releasing him from the torment of the bad spirit.
I’m sure the servant who had recommended David couldn’t have even predicted such a successful outcome.
But that’s where our story ends for this week, and we’re left to wonder what to make of this?
It’s easy and common for people to read this and place themselves in the place of David. After all, he’s the hero that’s going to defeat Goliath, and we’ve been conditioned to think of ourselves as David and our latest challenge in life as the Goliath that we must defeat. Therefore, it’s natural for us to think that we’re David here, too. That means that we read this story and assume that we’re supposed to wait on the Lord so that he can bring us into whatever new, victorious season of life he’s preparing for us.
But we need constant reminders — I need constant reminders — that David’s story is not about US. His story wasn’t included in the Bible in order to resonate with our lives. It’s in there to remind us of someone greater.
David, his kingship that is the betterment of Saul’s kingship, his rule over Israel, his leading of the people to worship God, is all pointing to Jesus.
David’s anointing is not an anecdote telling US to hang on until God puts us on the throne of victory. Jesus is already there! The gospel reminds us that Jesus has won the victory, and if we want victory, it only comes by sharing in HIS victory, not anticipating our own. David had the spirit of the Lord come powerfully upon him, but he didn’t attempt to use that for his own gain.
Too many of us have tried to assume David’s story as our own, but we’ve done it by pursuing the path of Saul: trying to coerce God into giving us the desires of our hearts, trying to live a good enough life to stay in God’s blessing, trying to “balance” the time we are following God and the time we are building our own lives.
But God doesn’t want or need your performance, or your achievements, or your accolades. He wants your heart.
We don’t need to prove ourselves or prove our worth to God. He just wants our heart.
But do we have the kind of heart that God is looking for?
Yeah, the Lord looks at the heart, but what does your heart look like?
Maybe you have a wounded heart like Samuel. Your hopes haven’t been fulfilled. The people you’ve cared about have hurt you. So you’ve done what Samuel did: RETREAT. You’ve pulled yourself back from the world. You’re unwilling to get even more wounded than you are. It hurts too much.
Or maybe your heart is envious and tormented like Saul’s? You’ve been working hard your whole life, and for what? For people to stab you in the back? For others to succeed? So you do what Saul did: you REACT. Maybe it’s anger. Maybe it’s workaholism. Maybe it’s some other vice to numb away the Worry that you can’t seem to shake. The worry that you’ve been building the wrong thing all along.
Or do you think you have a heart like David? It’s not exactly as clear, since David doesn’t speak at all in our section. All we can go off is his actions. But I think it’s clear enough that David’s heart was overlooked, and hopeful, and WILLING. And what did David do? He didn’t retreat, and he didn’t react. He RESPONDED to Samuel’s call. And when Saul sent for him, he responded. And all along, he was learning how to respond to God’s call on his life, even though he wouldn’t become king for quite some time.
So what kind of heart do you have today? Which heart is God looking for?
You know what I think?
I think God is looking for all of them. We can see that God used all of them to accomplish his purposes.
But if we’re wounded and retreating like Samuel or worried and reacting like Saul, then our hearts are pretty sick, and we need a healer.
And you know what? It’s incredibly good news to find out that you’re sick. It’s good news because we HAVE a healer! Maybe you didn’t know why things were “off” for you, maybe you couldn’t figure out why there was hurt. But getting a diagnosis means that we can get help.
So what are we supposed to DO in response to what God is showing us today? Go to the Healer.
Maybe you need to ask God to reveal what is sick in your heart. Maybe you immediately know without asking.
But go to the Healer, because God wants your heart! He WANTS to heal you. He’s got plans that we all get to take part in.
And if you’re still not sure whether or not God is actually speaking this to YOU, then hear this:
Our God is the God of the last, he’s the God of the least, he’s the God of the lowest, He’s the God of the lonely, He’s the God of the longing.
If that has ever been you, then this is for you: God wants your heart. What is holding you back?