Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 51:1-10
1The name David occurs more often than any other human name — more often than Abraham, or Moses, or Jacob, or Joseph.
Moreover, the story of David (which takes up most or all of 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and 1 Chronicles) is both the longest sustained human story in the Old Testament as well as one of the most important stories theologically.
After all, how can one understand who the biblical nations of Israel and Judah were, without grappling with God’s promises to David in 2 Samuel 7. Or, how could one understand the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah — both of whom wrestle with God’s promises to David, on the one hand, and God’s commandments as given through Moses, on the other hand? Or, how could a Christian understand what it means to confess Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ/the Messiah — without understanding that this confession is a claim about how God has chosen to fulfill the divine promises to David?
In other words — knowing something of the story of David is central to understanding both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Yet, the figure of David almost never occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary. And for this reason, many mature Christians have never heard a sermon on David. The task for those preaching in the Narrative Lectionary this week is big. It includes some or all of the following:
…To communicate a sense of the overall David story
…To communicate how David’s story fits within the overall story of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments)
…To help listeners find how David’s story intersects with their own stories
And, perhaps most importantly, to hear the promise of how God’s story intersects with both David’s story and our stories
The God Who Provides
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 and water and quail in the wilderness, law and ongoing relationship at Mt Sinai, a land to live in, food and family, and hospitality for Ruth and Naomi.
This story continues that story of God’s providing (or God’s “providence), as the first words of 1 Samuel 16 indicate. 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”. As in English, Hebrew uses “to see” idiomatically with the sense of “to provide” — for example, in English: “I will see to your needs.”2
This Hebrew term provides a 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.
I will “see” — you “listen”
The story in 1 Samuel 16 is both elegant and ironic. The irony is couched in the fact that the prophet Samuel is told to listen, but instead uses his eyes to see.
Each of Jesse’s first seven sons were 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” (verse 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 story plays upon the contrast between seeing and hearing. The chapter’s key word “see” is again in play, especially in verse 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 Samuel 9:19, Samuel had even referred to himself as a “seer,” literally a “see-er”.
But as 1 Samuel 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.
Create in me a clean heart
But there is one more irony to explore this Sunday — and that is David’s heart. God says, the Lord does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (verse 7).
Anyone who knows the rest of the David story surely knows that David was, well, . . .less than perfect.
During David’s reign, “Mistakes were made,” as the “non-apology apology” of today’s politician’s goes.
To tell the David story means to tell the truth about David — one must guard against gilding over his sins with a narrative version of gold leaf.
For that reason, this year’s Narrative Lectionary pairs the story of David’s anointing with Psalm 51 — and that psalm’s connection with the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Bathsheba’s faithful husband Uriah. The link between the two stories occurs in the word heart.
The Lord looks upon the heart.
But human beings sin. And thereby, we defile our own hearts. As David did in his adultery, attempt to cover up the sin, and in his murder of Uriah.
And the Lord can create clean hearts.
Psalm 51 associates the following words with David, when confronted by the prophet Nathan with his sin:
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
The good news is clear. Because of the Lord’s character (the first words of Psalm 51 are: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, according to your steadfast love”) there is hope for human hearts. Our character is flawed. We are broken. We sin against God and against each other.
But with God there is steadfast love, mercy, forgiveness of sins. And God can create clean hearts.
1Sections of this essay are drawn from my article, “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.