Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 51:10-14
Most people have fond memories of David from Sunday school: shepherd, singer of psalms, king, brave warrior.
He is the quintessential example of what it means to be a follower of Yahweh. These texts focus on two disparate events in his life.
The first is David’s initial appearance in the text. Yet, this section begins with the trouble of the previous one. God speaks to Samuel, now all grown up, and tells him that God’s favor is withdrawn from Saul. In the previous chapter, Samuel rejected Saul’s confession of sin and his pleading to be restored (1 Samuel 15:24-25). God is sending Samuel to anoint another.
Just as last week, the easy reading is to condemn Saul and move on to David. Yet, the Saul chapter remains unresolved. It is not tidy. What can we learn from this? Basically, the world is not tidy. Stories do not end the way we wish, and falls from leadership are often ragged and painful. God and Samuel and Saul all look bad here. We serve a God who is present in the jagged endings in our lives, making God sometimes seem different than we expect. God cannot repair everything that we have broken.
In the focus text, David is the object, not even appearing until verse 11. Samuel arrives at the place and to the man God instructs in distant Bethlehem. His first and only appearance causes a stir. Clearly, Samuel was a man to be feared. The elders come out to him “trembling.” Samuel declares a sacrifice to the Lord. We may miss it, but this interaction is turned upside down. The people of the town are supposed to offer hospitality to the stranger. Yet it is this stranger, the one who had never visited Bethlehem before, who is inviting the town to worship.
The unexpected twists and turns continue. The first son comes forward, and Samuel is impressed, but not God, who says, “I have rejected him,” and goes on to say that God can see his heart — and that is the reason he is not chosen. Now both Saul and Jesse’s oldest are rejected. Both are rejected as a candidate for kingship but are not removed from God’s favor. Call is God’s alone and rejection from one position does not disqualify one from other pursuits in the kingdom. God subsequently rejects all of Jesse’s sons.
Samuel then asks Jesse if there are any more sons. He replies “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” Just as with his four older brothers, he is not named. Indeed, he is not named until he is anointed. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). Of course, we as readers should be used to the unexpected acts of God. It began with God’s forgiveness of the people in the garden. God has been consistent to choose the one the world does not. The lesson here is the same as we see in the biblical texts over and over. The world has a pecking order: elder son over youngest, Pharaohs over slaves, the sons of priests over an outsider. God pays no attention to that order.
A second lesson is that the people God calls are not easy to find. God and Samuel travel to an out-of-the-way village. David is away, sitting with the sheep. God had to search for David, just as God had to search for the slaves in Egypt. God does not pick the most notable or available and that is also a lesson for us.
It is probably human nature to reduce our large world to our country, city, or even our own neighborhood. We can become so entrenched in our place that we forget about others. We need to be open to a call that includes people from the places we can barely name. We are not the center of God’s universe.
Indeed, David’s call is recalled by God when it became necessary to remind him of just that. David declares that he will build Yahweh a house, and God reminds him of exactly where he came from: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth” (2 Samuel 7:8-9).
The second reading is from Psalm 51, and it places us near the end of David’s life. The psalm’s superscription relates this prayer to the worst act of King David’s life. He has impregnated Bathsheba, killed her husband, and is confronted by the prophet, Nathan. David’s acts are deplorable. The confession here is powerful.
The psalm declares that only God can fix what we have broken. Only God can create a clean heart, but it is more than that: the one forgiven is also to act, indeed to teach others of God and God’s ways. After God restores the person, the response is to teach others about God’s grace. Yet we often bind sins to ourselves and our brothers and sisters. God again acts in ways different than we usually do. God forgives, and we are to welcome the teaching of the fallen one. This is not an easy thing to do, and each of us can think of very good reasons why this is a bad idea.
Yet, the psalm indicates that in the truly repentant that is exactly what should happen. God’s call does not mean that we as humans are perfected. We can and will sin, sometimes in gigantic ways. Without God’s forgiveness and restoration, our call from God and indeed our very lives are doomed. The way the biblical text speaks of the great king David is designed to teach us just that lesson.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of strength,
In David you chose a king whose heart was bigger than his stature. Create clean and willing hearts in us, and choose us to do your work. Amen.
Create in me a clean heart, ELW 188
Change my heart, O God ELW 801
Create in me, Paul Christiansen