Scripture: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
Previously, on Judges and Kings:
The people of Israel have gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle. They’re in the Promised Land, but over time, they seem to have forgotten the God who brought them there. And so things have descended into chaos. On the outside they are still under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines, on the inside their leadership is corrupt. The only person we can trust is the prophet Samuel.
Maybe you remember the chorus that echoes through the end of the book of Judges: “There was no king in Israel in those days. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
I asked you this question a couple weeks ago: What does Israel need? [A king.]
The Bible doesn’t actually speak in one voice in answer to that question. The author of Judges clearly thinks the only way out of the mess Israel is in is to get a king, someone who can put things in order again. But you may also remember the text Barb preached on last week, from 1 Samuel 8. In that the people come to Samuel and say, “We need a king!” (This is another line I can only hear in the voice of someone else, this time in the voice of my college Hebrew Bible professor, Julie Galambush: “We want a king! We want a king!”) And Samuel says, “OK, but you know if you have a king he’s going tax you for his own gain and conscript you and your children for war and make you his slaves.” And the people say [pause]: “We want a king! We want a king!”
Samuel tells all that to God and God says, “Fine, I don’t even care if they’ve rejected me as their only king, let them have a king.”
It’s probably fair to say that the author of this particular story isn’t especially pro-monarchy.
If you read on and read closely, you can continue to hear echoes of this disagreement in the text. I think it’s so cool that the Bible doesn’t always give us clear answers in matters of life or politics; instead, what we have is canonized conversation. In any case, Israel does wind up having a king.
In the Scripture passage we are about to hear in a few minutes today, we will be introduced to Israel’s second king. But right now, I want to introduce you to Israel’s first king.
His name is Saul, and we first meet him as he is wandering around with a servant looking for some of his father’s lost donkeys. As a last resort, his servant suggests they consult a seer who is rumored to be in town – maybe he can tell them where the donkeys are. Who do you think the seer is?
It’s Samuel, and Samuel has been waiting for him. God has told Samuel that Saul is coming, and that he’s the one – the one Samuel should anoint as king, the one to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines. So when Saul arrives and asks about the donkeys, Samuel invites him to dinner, sets a feast, anoints Saul’s head with oil, and tells him he’s going to be king.
Oh, and the donkeys find their own way home.
Here’s what you should know about Saul: he comes from a wealthy and influential family, even if they are from the tiny tribe of Benjamin. The Bible describes Saul like this: “There was not a man among the people more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”
In other words, he looks and fits the part.
It’s only later that Saul is publicly installed, but when he is, his kingship gets off to a good start. He has some early military victories and gains popularity and legitimacy. But he also begins to make some mistakes. He unlawfully offers a sacrifice after one of those battles instead of waiting for Samuel. He makes a rash vow that threatens to harm his troops. In another battle he keeps some of the booty for himself instead of offering it to God. In other words, a picture begins to emerge of a king who is hasty and narcissistic, rather than ready to listen for God’s instruction.
Well, Samuel did warn them.
“I regret that I made Saul king,” God says, “for he has turned his back from following me.” In the course of a few chapters, Samuel goes from anointing Saul to telling him God has rejected him as king.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Saul just steps down quietly, or anything.
But it does mean a new king is about to arrive on the scene.
I preached on this text once in my preaching class in seminary, and I began that sermon by announcing, “There is good news in Bethlehem today!” Our teaching assistant had to remind me that, you know, a king being anointed when there is already a king does generally mean civil war.
After Saul has been rejected – but while he still officially holds power – God tells Samuel to fill his anointing horn with oil and head to Bethlehem to anoint a new king. Samuel is understandably a little concerned that word will get out that he’s doing this, but God provides him with an excuse: just tell the people you are going there to sacrifice, and invite Jesse and his sons.
So Samuel does. It is from among the sons of Jesse that God has chosen the new king.
Eliab is the first of Jesse’s sons to be introduced. He is presumably the oldest, and apparently tall and handsome. Interesting: who does he remind us of? Yes, apparently, if Samuel wanted, he could have another King Saul.
But God says no.
“Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature,” God says, “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.”
Jesse calls his next son, and the next. Seven sons, same answer: not this one, not this one, not this one.
I do have to feel a little sorry for the first seven sons of Jesse, rejected rather rudely for a part they didn’t even know they were auditioning for. But of course, the story is getting us where we’re going, because when all seven sons have been voted off the island, Samuel looks around almost desperately and says, “Don’t you have any more sons?”
And Jesse says, “Well, I do have one more, but he’s looking after the sheep.”
This last son is, of course, David, and they go to get him, and right then and there Samuel anoints him king.
The story of the anointing of King David is, at least in part, a story about learning to see things like God sees things. This is apparently not so easy, since even the prophet and seer Samuel is ready to crown David’s tall, handsome oldest brother on the spot. Yet it’s the boy no one even thought to introduce who will become not just a king but the king, the one who will be called “a man after God’s own heart,” the one who will become a symbol of hope for all of Israel.
To be fair, the text does say that David is handsome, too. And as it turns out he’s no slouch in the war department, since he will defeat Goliath in the very next chapter. He’s also, in the end, no more perfect than Saul. He will make plenty of mistakes of his own, mistakes that will in fact have devastating effects on his fledgling kingdom.
But the point is that in the midst of all the people in Israel who look the part of king – Saul, Eliab, the rest of David’s brothers – God sees the one who no one even thought to call, and says, “That’s my guy.”
Because God doesn’t care who’s the most handsome or beautiful person in the land or the tallest or the strongest. God looks, instead, at a person’s heart.
On the one hand, that can be a source of comfort, to know that God sees us for who we are: not how good-looking we are, not how charismatic we are, not how rich we are, not how successful we are, not any of those things that we fear other people might look at us and see. God sees what’s in our hearts.
But in those words I also hear a challenge: a challenge to line our vision up with God’s.
-How do you think God see your nuisance of a neighbor or that coworker you try hard to avoid?
-How does God see that panhandler you pass every day?
-How does God see that gay or trans person whose story you can’t quite wrap your head around?
-How does God see the children at our border, separated from their families or detained with them? How about the adults?
But I think that those questions aren’t really the hard ones. Maybe sometimes they are. But often, I think, we know the right answers: that God values that person who’s annoying, that our poor or trans or immigrant neighbors are created in God’s image, that God sees them as people with hopes and dreams and divine purpose just like the rest of us.
It’s easy to know that God doesn’t look at outward appearances; it’s another thing to actually choose the right king.
Ultimately, this is not just a story about how we see, but about what we value. The things we value are the things we’re going to risk something for, sacrifice something for, the things we’re going to throw our weight behind. Samuel may know that David is God’s pick but if what he still values most is a king who is handsome and tall and strong, like a king should be – then we might be reading stories about King Eliab.
Samuel needs a little help, but ultimately, he’s willing to throw his weight behind the king no one even thought to invite to the party. Would you have been willing to take the risk?
When I was a senior in college, I heard a talk by Peter Storey, a South African Methodist bishop who had been active in the struggle against apartheid alongside the likes of Desmond Tutu. He came to speak at William & Mary about his experiences in the anti-apartheid struggle, but he was also invited to give a talk to my campus ministry called “Four Things Young Adult Christians Need to Know for the 21st Century” or something like that. To be honest, I thought it sounded boring, and I was much more looking forward to the apartheid stuff. Instead, I came away feeling like my life had been changed.
Bishop Storey gave us four challenges, four issues that we would have to reckon with as faithful disciples of Christ. They were 1) riches vs. poverty. How do we live our lives in light of the glaring inequality of this world and the constant demand for more? 2) Inclusion vs. exclusion: a challenge not only for a country struggling with racial justice and reconciliation, but for the church today. Bishop Storey said that he’d be glad to meet his Maker and be asked why his arms were too wide open instead of too closed – after all, he said, Jesus died on the cross with his arms open. 3) Flag vs. altar. How do we say no to civic religion – the worship of country – in favor of worship of the God we meet in Jesus? And 4) Peace vs. violence. How do we as Christians say reject the violence our world seems to be built on, the violence many of us benefit from, and choose peace instead?
Obviously much more could be said about any of those things. I said I left that night feeling like my life had been changed. The truth is I don’t know if it really was. These are issues I continue to struggle with – on my better days when I don’t forget them completely. But I thought of this talk again this week, because I think what Bishop Storey was telling us is that we have to not only see what God sees – that inequality is wrong, or that peace is better than violence – but also to choose what God chooses.
Remember back on Palm Sunday, when we talked about Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, and how he perhaps arrived at the same time as the Romans who came to keep order in the city for Passover – this makeshift parade following some guy on a donkey coming from one side of the city, regiments of war horses and soldiers in gleaming armor come from the other?
It’s one thing to say, yeah, that guy on a donkey – he’s humble, he’s holy, he comes in peace.
It’s another thing to actually risk joining his parade.
I wonder how this world could be different if we as Christians were truly willing to throw our weight behind the kingdom that doesn’t make any worldly sense: to take the risk of solidarity with those who are least valued by the world around us, to put our money where our mouth is when we say all are welcome, to lay down our arms, literally or metaphorically, and not count on the power of violence to save us; to value generosity and hospitality and mercy over all the things the world around us values?
Would you be willing to throw your weight behind David when the world has other kings to offer?
Are you willing to call Jesus king in a world that values everything else?
We have a faith that says that the poor and the weak and the hungry and the persecuted are blessed. We have a faith that says the last shall be first. We have a faith that says life is found in losing ours. If we can see those things, then let’s dare to live like they are true.