Our scripture this morning is I Samuel 16:1-13. I grew up in Sunday School, so of course I heard this story more times than I can count. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known the story, and I’ve known the moral: “Humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” It’s right there in verse 7.
But I didn’t just have that answer, I had all the answers – at least, all the important ones. I could have given people a run-down of all God’s opinions on every important issue, and I often did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m reading from the Common English Bible because the NRSV, your pew Bible, is really good with accuracy but really bad at story-telling. Listen for the word of the Lord in the story of the anointing of King David.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have found my next king among his sons.”
“How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “When Saul hears of it he’ll kill me!”
“Take a heifer with you,” the Lord replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.”
Samuel did what the Lord instructed. When he came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they asked.
“Yes,” Samuel answered. “I’ve come to make a sacrifice to the Lord. Now make yourselves holy, then come with me to the sacrifice.” Samuel made Jesse and his sons holy and invited them to the sacrifice as well.
When they arrived, Samuel looked at David, Jesse’s youngest. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. Samuel thought, That must be the Lord’s anointed right there.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t chosen him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.”
Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The Lord hasn’t chosen this one either.” So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the Lord hasn’t chosen this one.”Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord hasn’t picked any of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”
“There is still the oldest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.”
“Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.”
So Jesse sent and brought him in. Eliab was tall and good-looking, and reminded Samuel a little of Saul. He was exactly what Samuel thought a king should look like. The Lord told Samuel, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The Lord’s spirit came over Eliab from that point forward.
Then Samuel left and went to Ramah.
The word of the Lord?
Thanks be to God.
No it’s not. Come on, this is the story of the anointing of David and I just said God rejected David and Samuel anointed Eliab instead! Some of you didn’t notice the change because after I said “Samuel,” “Jesse,” “oil,” and “Bethlehem” your brain went on autopilot, finished the story for you, and went back to wondering whether the Pirates will beat the Tigers this afternoon.
And that’s fair enough; that’s how our brains work. They’re designed to scan information and ignore irrelevant content. Kinda like how 8 days ago the White House’s “1600 Daily” newsletter included a Washington Post story titled “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why.” In the second paragraph, Alexandra Petri writes,
BUT HOW WILL I SURVIVE ON THIS BUDGET? you may be wondering. I AM A HUMAN CHILD, NOT A COSTLY FIGHTER JET. You may not survive, but that is because you are SOFT and WEAK, something this budget is designed to eliminate.
But sometimes we just see what’s on the surface, like Samuel did. Sometimes we forget to read past the headlines to the heart of the matter, where things are a little more complicated. If God had been looking where Samuel was, I might’ve been named Eliab instead. …Or not.
I read the story differently this morning because we all know it so well that if I tell it the way it’s written, it feels inevitable. After I told you it was about the anointing of King David, maybe you opted not to pay attention – and 99% of the time, that would be a perfectly reasonable move. Kristen and I visited the Family Christian Store yesterday, and I can’t even tell you how many books we judged by their covers. It’s what we do – but it’s not what God does. Ever.
The way this morning’s scripture really goes is Samuel is impressed by David’s older brothers, but God rejects them all, so they have to send for David, who’s out in the field watching the sheep, and then God tells Samuel, “He’s the one,” and Samuel anoints David, not Eli’ab.
But I changed it because it’s a story that subverts expectations. You’re supposed to think God will choose the first-born to be king. After all, we first-borns tend to gravitate toward leadership roles. Plus, Eli’ab is tall and good-looking – a little like Saul, the last king Samuel anointed. But because everybody knows this story, we already know it’s going to be David.
And this is not your standard Ancient Near Eastern kingly origins story, either. In many countries, the king ruled because he was descended from the gods. “I grew up in a log cabin” was not the backstory it is today. On the other hand, David is still chosen by God – but God’s representative Samuel never sees it coming.
This is the biblical story. Things are not as they appear. David’s story isn’t the first one to subvert expectations. Abraham’s name means “Exalted Father,” but he doesn’t have any kids. God promises him children, but his wife Sarah is out of eggs, and she did not have any of them frozen.
Moses’ origin story is that he murders an Egyptian at 40, and when he’s 80 he takes on the greatest empire of the time with just a stick and a prayer.
The two spies get help from a prostitute named Rahab, who turns out to be David’s great-great-grandmother.
This is a God who thought Gideon’s army being outnumbered 4 to 1 gave them an unfair advantage and refused to work with them until they were outnumbered 400 to one.
And David – David is the youngest in his family – so forgettable that when Samuel tells David’s dad Jesse “We’re having steak; bring your whole family,” Jesse leaves him at home!
Even Samuel, who’s been saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” since he was a kid didn’t see this one coming – and the first thing Samuel heard from God was “I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
And just when you think you know God subverts expectations, you meet Jesus, king of the universe born in the cattle area downstairs because the guest room is occupied. Born to a poor family instead of a king, he feeds five thousand people with a small bread bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “The son of David?” He would be.
In a few weeks, he’ll ride a donkey into town instead of a war horse.
The one who “had no [stately] form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” proves to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Can we see past the crown of thorns to the many crowns?
Past the soldiers whipping him to the angels worshiping him?
Past the executed criminal to the exalted king?
Past the Son of Humans, to see the Son of God?
The apostle Paul says “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
So when somebody says, “I know how God feels about XYZ because in chapter such-and-such verse 3 it says blah blah blah,” I kinda go… “Really? You’ve checked, and the God who delights in not doing what we expect is in precise alignment with your preconceived notions? Because that would surprise me.”
Now, of course we can get a sense of God’s character in scripture – goodness, love, grace, and mercy – but if you have a chart that says when Jesus is coming back, Jesus will pick a different date just to mess with you.
God subverts our expectations because God sees past the surface. God sees things we don’t.
Which brings me back to the beginning, back when I knew what God was like. I remember being in a chapel at camp in 2009 with one set of ideas about God. I thought God was good, and God loved me, and Jesus died for our sins, and when I prayed or just sat in silence, it felt like God was really there. But I also thought God created the world in six literal 24-hour days. I thought was so angry at our sins that Jesus had to die to appease God’s wrath. I thought men were supposed to be the heads of their households, and I thought God was going to send LGBTQ people to hell.
Over the next few years, I had much of that content upended. Turns out, God knew a few things about all of those things that I didn’t – and still does. When I went back to that chapel last summer, 2016, and I was confident that some of what I believed about God in that chapel in 2009 was seriously off. I thought, “Was it even God back then if I was that wrong?”
The answer, of course, is yes, because we will always be wrong about God. Whatever we can imagine about God, God is better.
May we come to believe it.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.