One of the primary messages of this story is that God is (yet again) providing for the welfare of the people,
just as God had previously provided deliverance from Pharaoh; manna water, and the law in the wilderness; a land during the settlement; and guidance and leadership during the period of the judges.1 At the start of 1 Samuel 16, God says to Samuel: "I have provided for myself a king among [Jesse's] sons." The Hebrew word that is translated here as "provided" literally means "to see" (h)r); as in English, Hebrew uses "to see"--"I have seen to it"--idiomatically with the sense of "to provide."2 This Hebrew term provides the key to this story. It signals that God has "seen" the people's need even before they are aware of it. As God had done in the past, God was again venturing out ahead of the people, authoring the scroll of their story before it had yet been unrolled.
God's guidance is usually not as discernable in the moment as it is in hindsight. We may not sense what God is doing in our midst or how God is leading us. Even the great prophet Samuel did not know what God was doing. This story, with so much of the Old Testament, affirms that God's "providence" operates beyond the spectrum in which our sight operates, but even so we remain within God's view. Note also that God's eye here is on the flock and not just the individual sparrow. In our age we tend to individualize so many of the messages of the Bible. Here, it is important to note that it is the community of faith that is under God's care. Neither Saul nor David's older brothers might have understood the way in which God was providing for Israel as a good way, but God's eyes were on the people as a whole and not merely the individuals.
The central drama in 1 Samuel 16 is a much-loved story. Jesse brought each of his first seven sons before Samuel to see which son would be anointed as king. When the eldest son Eliab, who was tall and fair, passed before Samuel, the prophet thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord." God's response has echoed down through the ages: "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" (v. 7). Jesse then paraded Abinadab and Shammah in front of Samuel, but each time God said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse brought four more sons forward, but none of them were chosen either. There was one more son, but he was the youngest and of such little account that Jesse had left him out in the field tending the sheep. In the ancient Near East, the shepherd was a symbol of the king. Ancient audiences would have been touched by the irony that the one who was thought too insignificant to be considered for the role of king was actually already fulfilling his future vocation: shepherding the flock. When David was brought forth, the Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one."
This brief narrative drama--beautiful in its use of irony, suspense, and reversal of expectations--plays upon the contrast between seeing and hearing. The chapter's key word "see" (h)r) is again in play, especially in v. 7, where it occurs five times. The problem is that Samuel is relying on his human sense of vision, which will not do for the work of God. Back in 1 Sam 9:19, Samuel had even referred to himself as a "seer," literally a "see-er" (h)ero). But as 1 Sam 16:3 emphasizes, Samuel's job was not so much to see as to listen: "you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." As the above summary of the story indicates, the text uses this same verb "say/name" in each case when Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah, and David are presented. The message is rather clear. When dealing with matters of God's actions and will, human sight is an inadequate tool. The human sense of hearing--if we are listening to God--is preferable.
This dimension of the text rings out loudly in our cultural context. We rely for almost everything on our sight, but it often proves untrustworthy. Advertisers know that the quickest way to get their fingers into our wallets is through our eyes--by bombarding us with images of sexuality and excess. Do we really think that wearing the same watch as Heidi Klum or Tiger Woods will make us more attractive and successful? Apparently, since we buy the watches. And the cars, hamburgers, and light beer.
We also tend to pick our leaders--politicians, principals, coaches, celebrities, and so on--based on our society's norms about appearance. For the last century or more, the taller of the two final presidential candidates has almost always won. And lest we in the church think we have risen above this shallow horizon, take a look at the leaders of the church-- pastors, elders, bishops, college and seminary presidents--and ask yourself, "Are we really any different?"
What a powerful, countercultural, evangelical message that this text has to offer us and our times! Thus says the Lord: "The Lord does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."
1Parts of this article appeared in my essay, "Preaching the David Story," Word and World 25 (Fall 2003) 430-38. Used with permission.
2See Bruce Birch, "The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," in The New Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 2:1097-1100.