Our second lesson today comes to us from the old testament Book of Samuel, which shares the stories of the end of the time of Judges and the beginning of the kings. Before we enter, God and Samuel have realized that Saul, who has been anointed by Samuel, is not going to make a good king to lead the people of God.
Let us listen for God speaking to us on this morning, from chapter 16:
16The 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.
6 When 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 A-bin-a-dab, 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.
When reading this story of the search for a king and studying it over the past two weeks, I’ve found myself dwelling on Saul, the previous king. I spent time focusing on his story. What comes before. Trying to figure out What he had done that was so bad? Why was God on the search for a new king?
Saul was appointed the position because the people wanted a human king. Up until this point, God was their king. Saul’s reign started out just fine—tall and wealthy, successful in battle. But he didn’t listen. Politics gets interwoven into the narrative. And things get messy. In the case for Saul, the consequences of his actions were quite severe. Maybe he should have waited, considered, paused instead of charging ahead. He looses control of his kingship… and God sends Samuel looking for another king.
Saul’s story does not end well. Not all stories end well.
In this story of searching and rejection, I even found myself pitying the older sons of Jesse, why are they not chosen? What’s wrong with them?
But this is a story about David. David’s beginning…. It’s our introduction to the man who will rise to become king. Uniting the tribes of Israel, with God and each other. David, who’s faithfulness to god shines through in the Book of Psalms, who many even believe were crafted by David, in David’s court, these beautiful prayers to God, which survive to today and spoken from our lips as they are interwoven in our worship.
So my dwelling on Saul’s plight distracts me from seeing the beauty of this story when focused on the youngest shepherd boy in the pasture; and, it puts me in the same place that Samuel is at the beginning of our narrative. And God says: Stop mourning over him. It didn’t work out. Let’s pick ourselves up and continue forward. God is saying don’t give up on this idea of a King just because it didn’t work out! Let’s try it again.
What’s at stake here is big and new, and uncertain. Ever since Moses all of the leaders of Israel have been judges. So the king, is a new form of leadership for them. How to be a King is a balancing act, something they are trying to figure out together: God and the King and Samuel who is the last of the judges, and also the people. It was the people of God who asked for a king. And God and Samuel eventually went along with it. The dynamic is a give & take between the people and Samuel who speaks directly and openly with God, and God and the king, as they figure out what it means for them to have a human king. It’s not a blind obedience or supreme authority. The role of king for the people of God is going to be different from the other nations, who have an authoritative king leading them in battle and in worship. Whichever god, of the many, that the king worshiped, the people would also worship. In that aspect, for Israel this role of king will be different, because God is king. Has been king over them and the judges took on the leadership role in disputes and decision making, military pursuits, existing in this world in a violent time, remaining faithful and at times, not so faithful. So the relationship with God and God’s own people evolves as God, throughout history, relies on human hands to do the work. God speaks, calls, urges humanity into relationship. And Saul as king couldn’t balance the nuanced role of leadership in relationship with all these factors.
SO when God tells Samuel to stop grieving and mooning over the fact that they didn’t get it right the first time around, he is fearful. God is sending him on a dangerous pursuit. To anoint a king with his horn of oil, while there is still a king alive, the very same king whom Samuel had also anointed… no wonder he’s afraid! that’s treason…
God gives him a strategy for success, and so he takes his horn of oil and goes.
Samuel didn’t have a search committee, or a detailed job description. No list of required skills, desired qualities, writing sample submitted, previous work experience or references. All he had was God’s word that the man for the job was a son of Jesse.
So Samuel sets out, only with an example of what didn’t work before, what not to do. Initially Samuel sees Jesse’s sons and thinks, Eliab! First born, tall, dark and handsome… this has got to be the guy!
But God says: don’t look on the outward appearance… Look like I do—see what I see—the heart. Samuel’s making his choice based on what looks good. How it’s supposed to be. Kind of like Saul, from a wealthy family, a good family, tall…
But God is telling him to go deeper.
Make your choice based on the character of the man. The substance. Is this one going to be better than the last? Samuel’s like those people who—we probably all know one, you could be one of them! But they are always finding themselves having the same type of problem in their relationships… and when you dig a little deeper… you start to see, they’re always picking the same guy, or the same girl… over and over again, just in different outward appearance. In a simplified way, this is like what God is saying to Samuel. Look deeper, look at the heart. Don’t be fooled. Saul was tall strong, powerful leader, and see how well that worked out… now Eliab fits the same mold…
In previous stories, Samuel is described not only as a judge, but as a seer, but here, he’s not seeing… in this, at least not how God wants him to see. He sees as we see. Just the outside, the surface… not taking the time to dig deeper get to the heart of the matter.
‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (16:7)
In our culture, we have these expressions: “follow your heart,” and “let your’ heart decide.” Typically we use these when talking about romantic things, “matters of the heart,” which we separate from the mind where thinking and rationality and reasoning, comes from up here. But here <3 this is emotion and love and feeling. Which our society values differently from the mind. This <3 doesn’t carry as much weight as this ^.
But! In ancient Israel your heart was the center & your feelings were the GUT. So looking on the heart holds a different meaning than our first reading might indicate. It’s not romantic.
In Hebrew, the words are understood differently. In this culture, emotion is expressed by your stomach, your insides, your Gut. So it puts another layer on the instruction from God. The heart is not the center of emotion, the heart is character. And not just character, it’s even more than that, “it represents the total human person… [It’s] the center for decisions, obedience, devotion, intentionality…”[i]
The heart functions as, “the source of thought and reflection, it provides understanding, ability to discern good and evil.”[ii] This is what God tells Samuel to see, it’s everything of the person.
Looking at the heart is asking: What makes this person tick? What are their hopes and fears and dreams? What is the driving force… is it power? Or is it genuine desire striving towards God’s vision? And in our lives: Honestly seeking and searching the path God puts us on. Allowing our hearts to be open in a way that lets us listen, accept and follow God. Allowing our hearts to beat in line with God’s own heart.
This is the seeing God is talking about.
So Samuel is now looking deeper among the Sons of Jesse, but he’s not finding what he’s looking for. No, not this one, nor him… each in turn is considered. And as readers the suspense builds, if approaching this story for the very first time, we don’t yet know there is another son, and neither does Samuel.
Samuel is interviewing each one, what’s he going to do?! He doesn’t see the one yet among these men.
So he goes deeper… and Jesse reveals there is yet one more son…
This is a tale that echoes throughout the old testament.
Joseph, least favored by his brothers. Plotted against, sold… and he goes on to be a great leader in Egypt.
And his father, Jacob, was a twin, born a second son. Not favored by societal rules of inheritance, not favored by his father. He goes so far as to trick his brother and father into gaining position and inheritance over his twin brother Esau.
And we meet this theme again. When we see this as David’s story, we hear a tale of humble beginnings—unexpected leadership, …. There is grace in this Cinderella story. Where the son who wasn’t even invited to the anointing is one who was chosen.
God’s reminder to Samuel, to go deeper, to look at the heart, is an encouraging word, for anyone who feels forgotten or left behind, or out of favor. Or put down or misrepresented or misunderstood. “In our own moments of estrangement and self doubt [when] we do not believe that God can find possibilities for Grace in us”[iii] we look at David, in the field, with only sheep for company and are reminded that God looks on the heart… and knows our character. The real self underneath, broken, flawed, but loved deeply by our creator.
Ironically, we’re told right of the bat that David is ruddy and pleasing to the eye. But, we know, because of God’s words to Samuel, that it’s not just surface. He is the man who, rising through humble beginnings goes on to become king of Judah and later the uniting King of all of Israel, for the people of God to rally around. Because God saw the strength in his heart. The devotion, the faith, the power, the poet, the dancer… God saw all this in him, knowing the path would not be an easy one. It’s not for another 10 years after this story until he becomes king, it’s a long road….
And he’s not perfect, by any means, but through it all he continues to praise and worship God, trying to follow God’s call in his life and as a leader.
In this half way point through our Lenten journeys, we are reminded through the story of David’s anointing, to go deeper. With ourselves, with one another, with God. Let’s look beyond the surface of who and what we meet. And take the time to see the character.
We make a thousand instant judgments every day. When you walk into a room or a restaurant or squeeze your grocery cart past someone in the aisle… we see as Samuel sees, when he’s afraid of Saul, afraid of the journey ahead. Afraid of what might happen, afraid of making the wrong choice Again not bothering to look beyond the surface.
So—this week, this season, I encourage all of us to strive to look beyond the surface of those we meet. Striving to look at the heart as well. And in doing so we might glimpse a connection, an unexpected encounter with the very center of a person.
For “It is within the heart that [we as] human beings meet God’s word…”[iv] the living word.
SO let’s listen to it, deeply. And follow where it might lead… God put Samuel on a journey to anoint a king and even when he failed, he didn’t give up & God didn’t give up on him either. God sent him out again. Dust yourself off and find this new king, a new journey for the people of God.
In this season we are trying to do a new thing in this place, here at Bradley Hills. We can’t do it if we stay on the surface level or dwell on what was before. We have to listen to what our hearts perceive. Even when it seems scary, and dangerous, if we don’t set out with trust in God, we’ll never know when we DO come across our next great venture… We don’t know yet the possibilities for Bradley Hills. And, the only way for us to find out is to set out together, with our horn of oil and our hopes for the new thing God is doing in this place. Trusting that God will steer us and remind us when we’re not looking deep enough and set our hearts on what is right, allowing the spirit of God to rush mightily into this place.
[i] Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper’s Bible Dictionary. “Heart.” (San Francisco: 1985), 377.
[iii] Leander E. Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. II “Reflections: 1 Samuel 16:1-13.” (Nashville: 1998), 1100.
[iv] Achtemeier, 377.