We know him as a legend, and his story one of the most towering and important in the Bible. The giantslayer, the soother of Saul, the one who will become king and do what was once unimaginable: unite the tribes of Israel, turn them into an effective army, take Jerusalem, create a strong nation, establish a monarchy. Through all his faults and failings he will die an old man, Israel’s greatest king.
But our passage today is before all that – back when the Lord, rejecting Saul as King, sends Samuel to Bethlehem, to Jesse, to identify God’s choice for king among his sons. This is before the sling and smooth stones, before the poetry and the passion, before the rise and fall, the grace and the renewal, back when David was a shepherd in the fields, the youngest son of Jesse, and an odd and unlikely choice.
Even the need for a new king was unlikely at first, because Israel already had its first king – King Saul.
You’ll remember from our passage a couple of weeks ago – 1 Samuel 8 – Israel comes to Samuel and demands a king. They want someone powerful and strong, bold and courageous, someone who can intimidate Philistines and Moabites and enemies on every side. They say specifically that they want someone who will go out in front of them and fight their battles. And if you were to design the perfect match for their priorities, you couldn’t draw up anyone better than Saul.
One of the first things we learn about Saul is his appearance. Samuel’s eyes go right to him, seeing that he stands a head taller than everyone else, which was highly important in an ancient culture that prized stature as a sign of virtue and strength. Saul is the player that looks great in pads that the announcer just can’t stop talking about. He’s the one the team sends first off the bus or first out of the tunnel, who can intimidate the opponent and silence the crowd. Saul is the fighter who can stride into the ring with so much brash confidence you think the match is over before it begins. But Saul doesn’t have a glass jaw. He has more than just mirror muscles. Saul’s actions confirm his might. He wins battles decisively. He draws all of the strongest and most valiant warriors to his side. He’s efficient and commanding. He’s aggressive and angry. Just notice in v. 2 how timid Samuel is at the thought of drawing his anger. Because Saul routes his enemies, including the Philistines time and again. His string of conquests seems the perfect foundation for the growth of Israel.
Saul is the George Washington of the new nation – a mirror of the people’s vision of themselves. In his biography of our nation’s first President, His Excellency: George Washington, historian Joseph Ellis has argued that the unlikely success of the Continental Army and militia against the British Army hinged on Washington. And it was not so much his military strategy – which was sometimes questionable – but his stature, his presence, his physical attractiveness, his steady courage, and the way he seemed simply to embody the ideals of the Patriot.(1) When a nation is trying to be born, it needs just such a mythic hero. Someone like his excellency, King Saul, head and shoulders above, breathing different air, standing boldly out front wielding a broad sword.
Meanwhile, David can’t even lift Saul’s weapon. More than simply unlikely, he’s the least likely of choices: the shepherd boy from Bethlehem. Far from a distinguished background, he was descended from the likes of Ruth – an immigrant who came from the enemy territory of Moab; or Rahab, the Canaanite woman; or Tamar who had been threatened because of adultery in her patriarchal world. Unlike some of his brothers, who measure up to the standards of height and strength, he’s the smallest, he’s the youngest, he’s the last one to leave the fields, he does everyone else’s work so they can stand before the Lord’s prophet and attend the sacrifice described in chapter 16.
Saul breathes the rarified air, and David is low in the valley with the sheep. Saul towers over everyone, while David starts at the bottom. Saul is fully outfitted and ready to lead the army he’s built, but David can’t even fit in his armor, his slight frame rattling around, ill-fitted for the expectations of kings and kingdoms.
And God makes the choice, and God chooses David.
And yet, I don’t have to tell you, how often we make the likely choice, the expected choice. It’s not merely the ancients who value stature, lineage, and the virtues of power and strength. We choose Saul again and again in this world.
Some of you will know the work of Malcolm Gladwell – journalist and author, and host of the popular podcast, Revisionist History. Gladwell’s second book was called Blink, and outlines our tendency to make judgments in the blink of an eye. It’s something he terms “thin-slicing”: how we use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a broad conclusion.
In one chapter he describes a meeting in 1899 between two men. The first was Harry Daugherty – a lawyer and well-known political “fixer,” and the second was Warren Harding – at that time a newspaper editor from Marion, Ohio and a candidate for the Ohio State Senate.
Daugherty was impressed with Harding’s charisma and handsome face – he made a note to himself and suggested that Harding would make a great president. On paper, Harding didn’t seem presidential – he wasn’t too intelligent, he’d had countless affairs, and he’d never distinguished himself as a politician or an editor. When he served in the U.S. Senate, he passed no notable legislation. It seems the only reasons Harding continued to ascend in government were that 1) Daugherty helped him, and 2) he looked like a great, charismatic leader.
Eventually, Harding ran for president, was elected, and became – according to most historians – one of the least effective Presidents in American history. My apologies to any Warren G. Harding fans here today!
Gladwell uses this story to demonstrate such a “Harding effect” in our culture. Our implicit judgments, our biases, our bents determine so much. It even happens to Samuel in this passage – “Here is one tall and strong, surely it must be him.” We take quick views or thin-slices, and it effects who will be chosen, who will be believed, who will be trusted, who will be empowered. And such human tendency, especially in our place and time, contributes to so much bias over those things that appear, like gender, or race, or socioeconomic status, or lineage, or country of origin.
Like the people of Israel, like Samuel himself, again and again, we end up choosing Saul.
But it’s not merely out in our wider world that we make this likely choice. We often choose Saul in ourselves. We seek to be powerful and reputable, strong and well-heeled, outfitted in all the armor of this world with all responsibility and accomplishment and competitive virtue and stature about which we can boast. If only we could work a little harder, and earn a little more, and achieve a bit more by our own strength, we could be more like Saul.
But God doesn’t choose Saul. God chooses David.
Verse 7 says it plainly: “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘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.”
Ultimately this is not really a story about Saul or David, Samuel or any of Jesse’s sons. It’s a story about God. More than the story of an underdog ascending from the valley to the throne, and more than the anointing of a single unlikely king, this is a story about a God of unlikely choices, who is always using unexpected people and choosing unconventional ways of working in this world, looking down the line and choosing David over and over again.
God sees differently than we do. God’s eyes work in ways that mortal eyes don’t. “The Lord looks on the heart” the passage says. Earlier in Samuel, in chapter 13, we learn that the king the Lord seeks after Saul is a man after the Lord’s own heart. The theme is echoed in Scripture later in the book of Acts, chapter 13, as Paul preaches in the synagogue and recounts the work of God to the people, proclaiming the one who “raised up David to be Israel’s king,” Paul says, “to whom also he gave testimony, and said ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart…’”
The God who looks on the heart sees in David one who is after God’s own heart. So part of what this story does is allow us see a glimpse of God’s heart, and it’s the shepherd boy. The one in from the fields. He’ll go on to become a monarch. He’ll build a palace, and win great victories, slay a giant, and giant armies alike. King David, they will shout his name in the streets and herald his leadership. But that’s not when he reflects God’s heart. It’s now. It’s here. It’s as David, the youngest son, in from the fields, unlikely, least and last in line.
That’s who God chooses. It’s always who God chooses. It’s the younger Abel whose offering was preferred over the elder Cain’s. It’s Jacob the twin who by-passed first born Esau.
Rachel loved before Leah. It’s Joseph down in Egypt against all those older brothers. It’s the younger prodigal son partying and squandering his life while the elder brother meets every standard of duty and responsibility. It’s the Samaritan woman at the well, embarrassed in the quiet of the noonday. It’s always who God chooses. And if God chooses them, then remember the truth today that God chooses you.
Maybe you feel – or someone has told you – that you are an unlikely choice. I guess many of us have come to believe that about ourselves. John Claypool once asked the question: “Who is the most difficult person in the world for you to love? Whom do you have the most trouble accepting, affirming, celebrating, and then embracing?” “The answer is obvious,” Claypool writes: “It’s yourself.” He continues, “We do not seem to believe that God really knew what God was doing when God created us.”(3)
And yet this God of unlikely things, and unexpected people, chooses you, just as you are. It’s not because you fit in the armor of this world; not because you are able, or healthy, or accomplished, first off the bus or first in the line. God desires you and pursues you and chooses you because God sees the heart, and chooses you just as you are, not as you might be. This is the beating heart of God: that the God who chooses shepherd boys over kings, chooses you over and over again.
Believe it. Believe that its true. Believe that it’s possible. And let the way God sees shape how you see yourself and how you see this world.
God sees David. God really sees. And I suppose God’s eyes allow God to see all the way down the line to David’s distant relative, who will hear from an angel, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife… she will bear a son, who will save the people from their sins, and you are to name him Jesus.”
The one who will show us power in weakness and greatness in service. Born on the backside of a barn, another future king amidst the sheep of Bethlehem. Word made flesh, descending so low he will make his life amidst the last the least, and assemble as his followers a cast of the unexpected. He’ll defy convention, and exceed expectation, and topple assumptions all along the way. He has those eyes that work differently than mortal eyes, so all the overlooked – the marginal, the sinners, the unclean, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor people, women, children, foreigners, Roman centurions, all of them outsiders – will be seen by him, included in his company, welcome at his table. He will come up against the conventional kings and empires – those who tower above the rest, and walk first in the parade, Herods and Pilates, until it finds him on a Roman cross mocked with a sign that names him “King” but mockingly “of the Jews.” But then he’ll return, to inspire in people unconventional hope, and give them eyes that see themselves and this world as God sees and love themselves and this world as God loves. He’ll give them enough grace to live with the kind of compassion, kindness, and justice that characterize a kingdom he dreams about, that can come even in them, even here, even now.
Which is so hard to believe. Unless, of course, you believe in a God who makes unlikely choices.
- Referenced in “Not as Mortals See” by John Buchanan (June 25, 2006)
- See Chapter 3 of Blink, “The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men”
- In Stories Jesus Tells, p. 18.