1 Samuel 16:1-13
1The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
It was final exam day for an introductory Biology course at the local university. The exam was two hours long, and exam booklets were provided. The professor, who had a reputation for being strict, told the class that any exam that was not on his desk in exactly two hours would not be accepted and the student would fail. Half an hour into the exam, a student came rushing in late and asked the professor for an exam booklet. With an air of disgust, the professor said, “You’re not going to have time to finish this,” but reluctantly handed the student a booklet.
Sure enough, when time was up and the other students placed their booklets in a pile on the professor’s desk, the late student continued writing. When he finally finished, and came up to turn in his exam, the professor said, “I’m not going to accept that. It’s late.” The student looked incredulous and angry. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“No,” replied the professor, “as a matter of fact, I don’t.”
“You really don’t know who I am?” the student asked once again in a louder voice.
“No, and I don’t care.” replied the professor with an air of superiority.
“Good,” replied the student, as he quickly lifted the stack of completed exams, shoved his in the middle, and walked out of the room.
We all want to be famous, but sometimes anonymity has its advantages too. The most famous king in the Bible, King David, begins his story as an obscure nobody, almost forgotten by his own family. And yet, in this episode, there is so much we can learn, not just from David, but also from Samuel and from God as well.
To set the stage: Last week in our sermon series on the rise of David, we talked about how there came to be a king in Israel, how the elders of Israel gathered to demand that God’s representative, the prophet Samuel, appoint a king to rule over them like other nations. That first king was Saul, and at the time when today’s scripture reading takes place, God has already rejected Saul, but he still sits on the throne. That’s why Samuel is so afraid to follow God’s orders and choose a new king: “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.”
Although David makes his first appearance in the story today, the prophet Samuel is still the central character, so I’d like to begin with the question, what can we learn from Samuel in today’s reading? There are (at least) three things:
1. Action is a good antidote for despair. At the beginning of this passage, Samuel is wallowing in his grief over Saul’s rejection. He probably blames himself for choosing the wrong king. But God takes the initiative, comes to Samuel, and says “How long are you going to sit there and pout? Get up, take your stuff, and let’s start over.” I’m not saying that grief is bad: Mourning for loss can be a healthy thing. But grief that descends into despair and paralysis leads nowhere good. Getting up, setting out, and trusting in the one who leads us is a difficult act of faith, but as Samuel learns, it is worth the effort.
2. Persistence pays off (If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again). If the first King flops, go find another one. If Jesse’s eldest son isn’t the king you’re looking for, try the next son. And the next, and the next, and the next…when you run out of sons…keep trying. My mother used to tell me that you’ll usually find something in the last place you look for it. Her assumption was that you would keep looking until you found it.
3. Expect the Unexpected. Samuel was a good Israelite, part of a patriarchal society where the eldest son received the largest part of the inheritance of the father. Naturally, Samuel expects the eldest son, Eliab, to be the King he’s looking for. Probably, Eliab was already old enough to drop everything and take up the kingship immediately, just as Saul had done. The last thing Samuel expects is for the youngest son, just a boy, likely incapable of leading an army into battle, to be God’s chosen one. But with God, we are continually called to expect the unexpected. Which brings me to the next question…
What can we learn about God from today’s reading?
1. God chooses unlikely leaders to do his work. I’m probably a good example of that myself. Chances are, you may be a good example of that, too! But this is a clear pattern for God: He chose a wandering, childless old couple (Abraham and Sarah) to be the father of a great nation. He chose a stuttering murderer with anger management issues (Moses) to lead his people out of the wilderness. He chose a poor carpenter and an unwed teenage mother to raise his son, and some uneducated, working class, fishermen to spread the gospel throughout the world. God (still) chooses unlikely leaders to do his work.
2. God uses different criteria than we do. When Samuel seems surprised that God has rejected Jesse’s eldest son, the Lord tells him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God’s criteria are different than our criteria.
3. When God chooses you, it’s immediate. As soon as David comes before Samuel, God tells him “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” The very next verse does NOT say, “and then over the years, young David slowly grew into his anointing, gradually, only as much as he could handle…” It says “and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” That doesn’t mean we don’t grow, that we’ll never have setbacks, or days where we don’t feel God’s presence. Our commitment to God wavers all the time, although it hopefully grows in time. But God’s commitment to us is instant, consistent, and forever.
That’s what we can learn from Samuel, and from God. But this sermon series is about David, and here he makes his grand–or, rather, “humble”–entrance. What can we learn about David, here? There’s really only one verse that tells us much of anything about him (verse 12) and unfortunately, it’s pretty short, as well as pretty confusing.
I’ve always thought it somewhat odd that in verse 7, God says not to judge someone based on outward appearance, and then as soon as David shows up, in verse 12 we read about how good looking he is.
(וְה֣וּא) (אַדְמוֹנִ֔י) (עִם־יְפֵ֥ה) (עֵינַ֖יִם) (וְטֹ֣וב) (רֹ֑אִי)
(roi) (v’tov) (eyenim) (im-yfeh) (admoni) (v’ho)
(sight) (and good) (eyes) (with beautiful) (Adam/red/earth) (and he)
-“Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” (NRSV)
-“He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.” (NIV)
-“Soothly he was ruddy, and fair in sight, and of seemly face.” (WYC)
-“He was earthly-minded, with eyes for the beautiful, and good vision. (INL)
The standard translations identify three attributes of David that are largely based on outward appearance. The last translation (my own) remains faithful to the Hebrew, but translates each attribute as an inward quality, a quality of the heart or mind. So what can we learn from David? What qualities does God see inside him?
1. David is earthly-minded. He is practical, focused on the problems and challenges all around him, grounded in the present. Even Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, points to the example of David going into the temple with his men and eating the bread that was reserved for the priests. Jesus’ point in telling this story is to prove to the pharisees that sometimes practical concerns trump spiritual ones. A good leader is not so spiritually minded that he or she is no earthly good.
2. David has an eye for beauty. This is the artistic side of David, the musician, the psalmist, the poet. He sees what is up close, the details, and has an appreciation for God’s creation, for the past. A good leader must be able to see the beauty in the world in order to inspire others to greater depth and height. Of course, it’s worth noting that this one ultimately gets David in trouble, too. His eye for beauty leads him to a rooftop, and an adulterous affair with Bathsheba. Sometimes our greatest strengths also contain the seeds of our greatest failures.
3. David has good vision, or good sight. This could be taken literally (after all, he’s pretty good with a slingshot), but I think it also means foresight, or the ability to see what is far away, distant, in the future. Much of David’s military success in later chapters comes from his uncanny ability to stay ten steps ahead of his enemies. A good leader must be able to anticipate the changes in the world around her, to percieve the long-term consequences of his actions or those of others.
These are the things we can learn from David’s character, the things that make him a leader after God’s own heart. But I think there’s something more we can learn from David, too, and it’s about his (and our) vocational calling. Your vocation is your job. John Calvin, one of the founding fathers of the Presbyterian church, taught that all of us have some sort of God-given vocational calling, and that our vocational calling is a sacred thing. In other words, if you’re a chimney-sweep, you’re supposed to sweep chimneys to the very best of your ability, in order to glorify God. And if you do, your chimney-sweeping job is just as holy, just as sacred a calling as that of Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, or Saint Francis.
So what can we learn about Vocation from today’s passage?
1. When Samuel arrived, what was David doing? He was shepherding. Working. Doing.
2. When Samuel anoints David, what does David do right after that? He goes back to shepherding.
3. What does David end up doing in the long run, after he becomes king? Shepherding. People, not sheep.
Through it all, David continues to work diligently at the vocation he has been given. “King” is just a title, in Hebrew as well as in English. David’s vocation is shepherding others–sheep, people–it doesn’t matter; and it remains constant throughout his life. God has called you to a vocation as well. Perhaps it’s the one you’re currently engaged in; perhaps it’s not.
I ran away from my vocation calling for at least 18 years before finally listening to God. When I was a college student, I made fun of theology majors. Then after graduation, I got a job working for a church as a youth director. I loved that job, but I pretended that it was because God was calling me to work with teenagers, not because God was calling me to work in the church. And so I left the church and became a high school English teacher, still running from my calling. Even when I finally enrolled in seminary, about seven years ago, I informed God that my vocational calling was going to be planting new churches. But God had something better and more beautiful in mind all along…and it was you.
I’m glad I stopped running the other way, and I hope that you will always find yourself running with God: In your vocation, in your family, as you lead others and as you follow. This is the blessing of David: When God chooses you–no matter how unexpected, no matter how unlikely you think you are–when God looks deep within your heart, may he find his own heart reflected there.