Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 16

In this chapter, Samuel anoints a young boy, David, to be the next king.

The LORD begins by urging Samuel to move on.  He has mourned for Saul, and that was good for a time, but he cannot let his grief over Saul paralyze him from anointing the next king, and the LORD is asking Samuel to move on.  The LORD was also grieved by what happened with Saul, but Samuel was shutting down, to the detriment of his nation, so the LORD urges him to begin the process of electing Saul's successor.

Samuel goes to Bethlehem “under cover” that he is going to offer a sacrifice.  I think it's fascinating to see how the elders respond to Samuel because this shows us how the ordinary people of Israel viewed their national prophet, at this time the senior representative of the LORD.  To us, Samuel is perhaps cantankerous but generally friendly, and we've read many stories about him so far in the book that bears his name.  To the people of Bethlehem, however, he was a source of considerable fear, such that the first thing they ask him is if he comes in peace.  What are the leaders of Bethlehem thinking?  They are probably thinking about the stories of Achan or the 70 men who died looking into the ark of the covenant.  This is nation where the law is to "purge the evil from among you", so they are probably afraid that God has found evil among them that needs to be purged.  Fortunately for them, Samuel has come for another purpose.

Samuel comes in peace and looks over the sons of Jesse to see who will be king.  He is initially impressed by Eliab’s appearance and height (v. 7), much like the people of Israel were impressed by Saul’s appearance and height (1 Sam 9:2, 10:23-24).  We have already seen what kind of king that Saul is becoming, the emotional insecurities that drive his behavior and cause him to act without faithfulness to the LORD, and I expect that Eliab would have been very similar.

The first king over Israel was demanded by the people, so the LORD gave them the sort of king that they wanted; someone physically impressive, but who ultimately proved unreliable.  The second king will be the sort of king the LORD wants, not chosen or considered for his appearance, but for what kind of person he is on the inside.  “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  (v. 7)  This is another one of my favorite verses in the bible because it's so broadly applicable to modern life and also because it gives us such a profound insight into both human behavior (looking at things superficially) and God's behavior (truly deep understanding of the intentions and desires of all people).

There have been countless times when I find myself praying, "God, you know my heart"; you know the desires that I have, desires to do good things that I sometimes succeed and sometimes fail.  This is possibly one of the most encouraging verses in the bible, because for all of my life people have misunderstood me (and will continue to do so).  What this verse means is that God is not like that; God understands the desires and emotions that underlie our actions, both the good and the bad.  Of course, if this were the only thing we knew about God then we would still be in deep trouble, because God would also see the evil and greed and murder within our hearts.  What makes God good is that he sees and understands us, but he is also filled with mercy, helps us in our weaknesses, and encourages us in the things that we do well.  God understands, and it is an understanding that is infused with love.  One of the strongest memories I have of the LORD is looking into his eyes and seeing satisfaction.  It was the kind of satisfaction that you might see in a craftsman who has finished something marvelous.  Or possibly what you might see in a father who is watching his child do something amazing.  His eyes looked right through me, from the outer skin to the very core of my being, and he was pleased with what he saw.  It's impossible to overstate what kind of effect that approval has on the human psyche, since we have such a tremendous need for validation.

None of the seven sons that Jesse brought were chosen by the LORD, and Jesse only mentions his youngest son when Samuel specifically asks about it.  Imagine how the scene must have been: the great prophet Samuel arrives at this small town; the elders come forth, trembling at what purpose Samuel might have; Samuel consecrates Jesse and his sons to come to a sacrifice; Jesse comes to the sacrifice and brings all of his sons ... except for David, who is left outside tending the sheep.  In what is possibly the most important event of Jesse’s life, and commanded to bring his sons, he brings 7 out of 8 of them.  How little respect must David have that his father didn’t bother to bring him to meet the prophet?

Nevertheless, “he is the one” (v. 12).  David is anointed in the presence of his brothers and father, but nobody else knows.  Like when Saul was anointed, there is a gap between the time when he is anointed and when he actually becomes king.  However, the “spirit of the LORD” departs from Saul and comes upon David around this time.  I think this is very similar to the story of Adam.  Adam is cursed in Genesis 3 that he would return to dust and death would come upon him.  However, Genesis 5 tells us that Adam continued to live for another 800 years after giving birth to Seth, and by any sensible chronology this happens after the curse.  Again, there is a delay between when the LORD proclaims Adam's death and when his body dies.  We see these kinds of delays all the time between the LORD's declaration and when the full consequences of that declaration come about.  When it relates to sin, a later passage in the bible calls this God's "forbearance", because by delaying the consequences of sin God is creating an opportunity for people to repent.  When it relates to good things (like the redemption we have in Christ), the delay gives us an opportunity to share the riches of Christ's mercy to others.  It can be difficult sometimes (just as it is difficult for David to wait until he becomes king), but it is inevitably profitable for us as we grow through the challenges and joys of life.

For David, there are two immediate consequences.  The first is that he is called upon to become part of Saul's court, his shieldbearer and musician.  I think about this the same way that I view Samuel's arrival just after Saul offered a sacrifice in 1 Samuel 13.  It's so ironic that we know it isn't happening by chance.  The LORD is clearly orchestrating events to bring David into the royal court.  In an event that certainly must have evoked some humility from David, he found himself the servant of a man whom God promised David that he would replace.  All evidence seems to suggest that David served Saul well.

Secondly, we can see in v. 19 that David is still “with the sheep”, which I think is also very telling. Although I've heard some commentators say otherwise, it is likely that shepherding was a low-ranked social occupation in David's time, and it shows quite clearly in this chapter.  We can also see the resentment of David's brothers, who are witness to him being anointed king over Israel, and promptly send him back to the fields.  There is little doubt that his handsome, tall brothers are deeply resentful that their despised, youngest brother is going to be their king.  What I find so striking is not just that David is shepherding his father's flock, but that even Saul is aware of David's occupation.  Verse 19 quotes Saul as asking Jesse for "David who is with the flock".  I can only imagine, again, the jealousy of David's brothers when they find out that the king personally summoned David to serve in the royal court.  However, in spite of the several ways that David is being honored, it is going to be a very long road before he is crowned king, and he is going to face many sad adventures and disappointed hopes before he achieves what the LORD has promised him.

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